Films about underground resistance movements fighting foreign occupation often deal with the uncomfortable truth that such movements must, out of necessity, target and eliminate their countrymen as much as, if not more than, their foreign occupiers. Army of Shadows, the gold standard of the genre, showed members of the French Resistance almost exclusively killing other Frenchman during the Nazi occupation. Anthropoid is a similar, fictionalized account of a Czechoslovakian resistance movement’s efforts to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the third highest ranking member of the Nazi party and head of the German occupation forces in Czechoslovakia during WWII.
The film’s opening scene reveals the invisible line that separates patriots from traitors, when Czechoslovakian resistance fighters are given refuge by a man that could just as easily be a partisan as an undercover Nazi informant. In developing complex characters that embody the ambiguity underlying the traitor-patriot binary, director Sean Ellis’s film offers a potent examination of the moral rectitude of resistance. While ultimately validating its partisan heroes, Anthropoid never shies away from calculating the devastating human costs and disastrous consequences of their bravery.
This film about patriots fighting and dying for a nation that no longer exists elegizes a lost past, its poignant depiction of Czech and Slovak unity functioning as a subtle metaphor for the necessity of European cooperation in the face of contemporary totalitarian threats, both internal and external. In having the two principal resistance fighters, Jan (Jamie Dornan) and Josef (Cillian Murphy), be Czech and Slovak, respectively, the filmmakers reveal the story’s timeliness in its call for unity and cooperation, rather than appeasement and collaboration, in the face of terror.
While Anthropoid never mentions the creation of an independent Slovak Republic during the war as a Nazi puppet state, it provides an otherwise valuable overview of the political and historical background that led to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. A brief but passionate prologue puts the blame squarely on the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the Allied powers under the Munich Agreement, which ceded the nation to Hitler in 1938 without a fight in an effort to appease Germany and forestall the fascist takeover of Europe. The film thereby places the responsibility for the subsequent deaths of innocent Czechoslovakians on the European leaders that sacrificed them in a misguided effort to avoid further conflict, an experience whose lessons continue to be relevant in modern Europe.
Anthropoid captures the terror and paranoia of life under Reich-Protector Heydrich, a principal architect of the Final Solution that came to be known as the Butcher of Prague. The film’s persistent use of extreme close-ups and narrow cropping captures in visceral terms the claustrophobia of resistance, with its endless duplicity and sense of being under constant surveillance. The drained lighting effectively mimics the drabness of WWII color documentary footage, with its almost surreal sense of faded glory and ethereal violence. When the heroes cross the Charles Bridge, obscured in the early morning twilight by dense winter mist, they look like ghosts crossing over from the land of the living to the realm of the dead, a perfect image for life under Nazi rule as a kind of living death. The film’s ending, where death is portrayed as a kind of baptism through the purifying act of sacrifice, reaffirms the impossibility of life under a regime whose raison d’etre is murder.
In Hemingwayesque fashion, Anthropoid examines the manner in which the true characters of men and women are revealed during what the writer called “the moment of truth,” the instant one comes face to face with death. Under an occupation, the film argues, this moment is permanent, and those who collaborated with the Nazis to save their own skin chose the path of cowardice and moral, if not physical, death. It’s those who resisted that chose life, and this choice between eros and thanatos is substantiated by the love that Jan and Josef find in Marie (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka (Anna Geislerová), the women who risk their lives to aid their mission.
And yet, the film is wise enough to understand that theirs are also violent deeds—that the quixotic nature of their noble mission will have deadly consequences for those in whose name they fight. When the Nazis pull out the severed head of a female resistance fighter to intimidate another partisan, we’re reminded that the fight against fascism continues, and the example of these courageous men and women continues to be disturbingly relevant.