“Anthropoid” reminded me so much of the (far superior) basement scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” that I kept hoping Hugo Stiglitz would show up and get the ball rolling to save me from this exercise in extreme dullness. The problem with “Anthropoid” is that there’s not anything really happening until the film’s final 10 minutes. The rest of the monotonous two hours are spent doing a whole lot of nothing. When I tell you the plot, you’ll think it sounds great. Unfortunately, it’s not.
The film tells the fascinating true story of Operation Anthropoid, a secret mission by the Czechoslovakian government to assassinate Nazi SS officer Reinard Heydrich (the third in command behind Hitler and Himmler). This story focuses on two soldiers, Josef (Cillian Murphy) and Jan (Jamie Dornan), who parachute into their homeland to execute the plan. This historical incident should’ve made a kick-ass war picture but instead it’s just lame.
This is an extraordinary true tale that, if in the hands of a better director and storyteller, could have been one of the best World War II era movies in ages. There’s far too much talking and staring and hiding and plotting, and the overuse of shaky cam doesn’t fit with the material and is distracting. The film is set in the gorgeous city of Prague but instead all we get are ponderous scenes in dusty basements and lots of quiet hiding in houses. There’s also an uncomfortably long epilogue (told only with words flashed on the screen) that reveals the ultimate conclusion of the Operation.
The film did inspire me to research more about the history behind it. When a movie educates me about something, I always view that as a win. But an interesting glimpse of history doesn’t make this thriller any less dull.
Prior to the start of World War II, Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia without ever firing a shot, having reached an agreement with other European countries that was supposed to avoid all-out war. Some of the Czech government fled the country, along with a contingent of military forces. Hitler placed SS General Reinhard Heydrich — the Third Reich’s third-in-command and architect of the Final Solution — in charge of the country. He butchered thousands of Czechs during his occupation of the country.
To respond, the displaced Czech government devised Operation Anthropoid. The goal of the operation was simple, although the means were not: assassinate Heydrich. “Anthropoid” is based on the story of that effort.
Sounds fascinating, right? As interesting as the story is, the movie is not. The story of the primary Czech operatives Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) moves incredibly slowly and not much happens until the third act. For the most part, we see Gabcik, Kubis, and their compatriots hiding, plotting, and hiding some more. And not much else.
When we finally get to the assassination attempt, the story starts to move more quickly. But when we finally get to a showdown and shootout between the Czech rebels and the Nazis, the action is filmed poorly in Paul Greengrass-style shaky cam. This filming style is particularly poorly suited to historical action, where the frenetic style is a distraction that detracts from most of the natural drama. Director Sean Ellis (who made the enjoyable 2006 indie “Cashback“) lacks confidence and a voice of his own — instead assembling the film with a hodgepodge of styles that don’t serve the story.
And the acting isn’t much better. When you’re dealing with Nazis as the bad guys, anyone standing in opposition is immediately sympathetic. But these actors and this director never earn anything more than that positional sympathy; we learn virtually nothing about these characters or their background or what makes them tick. Not getting to know the characters ultimately hurts the film and makes the climax little more than an exercise in finding a conclusion.
Put simply, it’s difficult to watch “Anthropoid” without wanting to check your watch. Students of history would be better served reading a book about the operation, which almost certainly has to be more exciting than this movie.