As soon as the film opened, I knew this was not going to be a glossy watch. World War Two films are not hard to come by, but one based on actual events from the perspective of Czechoslovakian operatives is a rarity in cinema.
You know you are in for an exhausting two hours, and that’s a compliment to how the film has been put together. It’s rough, snowy opening, as the parachutists land in the middle of woodland, is only the beginning of a slow, tentative, but intense drama that unfolds deliberately right until the very end. The story, which is based on actual events, follows two Czechoslovakian soldiers, Josef Gab?ík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan), tasked with Anthropoid: the operational code name for the assassination of SS officer Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich, the primary architect of the Final Solution, was the Reich’s third-in-command behind Hitler and Himmler, and the leader of Nazi forces in Czechoslovakia.
As soon as both men land, they are forced to survive and keep themselves invisible in their homeland, where Heydrich is based, and they become concealed amongst the resistance, who have their systematic ways of keeping themselves merged within society under Nazi ruling. You are essentially in hiding with the characters. The film allows you to sense the danger; it has its way of making you feel on edge with each sequence of scenes. Very few films manage to capture the idea of the intense scrutiny and pain you must have been under in Nazi territory. While we will never be able to experience it like for like, this movie manages to close you in to the point where you feel claustrophobic within its setting. The pace of the film helps, its burns slow like a newly lit fire, and it tentatively grows into a large flame when it reaches the second half of the movie. The dialogue is direct and to the point, which equally adds to the seriousness of the situation. Their mission is coupled with an oddly planned romance so the men can further go under the radar by showing they are “normal” in the face of the Nazis. The romantic feelings only make the task at hand even more challenging when the assassination attempt takes place, and by the time that scene comes, you have a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach because you know deep down nothing is going to be simple.
The film places you in a setting very much pressured to live under the terms of the Nazis. It is an entrapment that Josef and Jan have to overcome. Surviving the mission seems impossible, and as the film moves from the second act to the third, you feel the weight of the situation they find themselves in and the consequences of their actions.
The film is split into three essential acts; the planning, action and consequence. By the time you get to the third act, I all of a sudden felt overwhelmingly stressed, and that is again credit to the performances of all the cast and director Sean Ellis, because while the slow, tentative build up is tedious, it provides enough information to keep you gripped, but oddly tense. The way the film portrayed the Nazis response to the assassination attempt is nothing short of horrific. I got this feeling that the characters were struggling to come to terms with the consequences, almost like they couldn’t breathe, making you as the viewer feel more claustrophobic. Because whilst assassinating Heydrich felt necessary, it did not conclude the war, nor did it relieve the Czechoslovakians. You feel so stressed by the end because the movie portrays the hopelessness of the situation. We are witnessing a narrative set while the Nazis were at the peak of their powers.
The leading performances from Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan are honest to the pace of the film as well. They set the tone with their use of dialogue. There is a scene in particular near the start where they go on a double date which is ridiculously plagued by paranoia, and they are forced to act normal due to their reasonable opinion that the Gestapo may become aware of them. And the unease both actors display appears so natural that you can sense the strain they are placing on the two women. With this, you feel paranoid about them, and the feelings imposed by the film’s performances and setting is consistent all the way through. When they are desperate, you feel it. When they feel enclosed, you feel it.
Overall the film is tedious. It’s tense. It’s slow. It’s stressful. This is what makes the movie an excellent showcase of a history that some will not know much about. It is honest and direct to the point regarding the situation. By the time the credits roll and the music instantly stops I assure you that you will be amongst an audience in silence all feeling the same as you. The tension in the room felt slightly uncomfortable, and it was only lifted once I made it outside. The movie provides breathtaking cinema.
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Daniel Hart is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has operated as Editor-in-Chief since 2017.