Based on the true story of the WWII Operation Anthropoid mission to assassinate Nazi third-in-command Reinhard Heydrich, this is a hard-hitting film, which offers very little respite from the bleakness it portrays. It’s unflinching, forcing its audience to confront the awful brutality of war, the vile atrocities we commit in the name of patriotism or fear. And it’s quite difficult to watch.
It’s 1942; Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) have been tasked with assassinating the Nazi leader of the protectorate, both to reassert the legitimacy of the exiled Czechoslovakian government, and as retribution for his harsh rule. Heydrich (who was also in charge of the so-called Final Solution) was clearly a hateful man, and this film focuses firmly on the victims’ experience; the Nazis are portrayed as a terrifying mass, with nothing to differentiate between them; they are uniformly evil. And that’s fair enough, I think; that’s how they would have appeared. I don’t imagine the people whose countries they occupied cared much about individual German soldiers’ situations, nor how propaganda and forced-conscription would have swelled the Nazi ranks. This film belongs to Jan and Josef, and the courage they and their tiny band of resistance fighters showed in taking on such a mighty foe.
The first half is slow and meticulous, focusing on the minutiae of living secretly and planning. Their developing relationships with Maria (Charlotte le Bon) and Lenka (Anna Geislerová) are subtly told, and the sense of imminent threat is ever present.
Once the assassination attempt is under way, the pace picks up, and the tension is unbearable. Indeed, the final battle is a fast-paced, relentless shoot-out, a bloodbath of the most ugly kind. No punches are pulled here. We see bullets rip through flesh. We see people being tortured until they lose all sense of who they are. But, ultimately, this is a tale of hope. Yes, human beings do terrible things. We can’t deny it. But other, better human beings will always try to bring them down. And, sometimes, they will succeed.