Movie Review: Anthropoid

new-poster-anthropoidThe 2016 movie Anthropoid has gotten some negative reviews for failing to be properly cinematic and was a pretty unspectacular performer in box office receipts since its release in August – but I found it to be an emotionally powerful film deserving of deep reflection.

Anthropoid is the story of the Czech Resistance operation of the same name, the plot to assassinate Reinhart Heydrich in Prague in May of 1942. Heydrich was the number three man in the NAzi hierarchy, and had gone to Prague to pacify the Czech population, which he accomplished with brutal effectiveness. The government in exile in London, in cooperation with British SOE (Special Operations Executive) dropped a number of agents back into the county, including two men with orders to assassinate Heydrich – men named Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš (played by Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan).

It was not difficult to predict that an attempt to assassinate an officer of Heydrich’s stature would incur a merciless retaliation, and the moral dilemma of the operation  can go all the way back to the order to undertake the mission. Did the Czech government truly believe that the assassination would bring tangible benefit to the war effort, or did they want to justify their position to the British and Allies at the expense of the Czech civilians who would suffer the brunt of the reprisals? That question remains open to debate, but it brings up a question not often considered in the portrayal of resistance movements like that of the Czechs.

The individual courage and dedication required to execute an operation like Anthropoid are enormous – the chances of success are always lower than one would like, and the risk of capture, torture, and death extremely high. And yet, in many ways those risks pale in comparison to the threat of collective responsibility and reprisals against an entire civilian population. The two assassins with the Sten and the homemade grenade were not risking their own lives, but in fact taking an action that would result in the deaths of literally thousands of their countrymen and women, including the complete razing of the village of Lidice. Do they bear the guilt for this, or does it rest solely on the Germans who ordered it? None of us would probably lay the blame on the assassins, and yet they must struggle with the decision themselves. If they do nothing, Heydrich will be reassigned elsewhere, and leave Prague and Czechoslovakia in relative peace – and yet he undoubtedly deserves death and they have been ordered to deliver it to him. The men have families in the city, and know that their loved ones will surely be the first to be executed should they be found out.

In the film we see the two assassins grappling with these crushing decisions in a way few other movies have been willing to show. Anthropoid is in fact quite remarkably true to the actual history, in most cases down to the slight details. It maintains this authenticity probably at its own expense, as many potential audiences (and critics) are put off by inconvenient truth. I, however, found it to be a profoundly moving account of the actions of a group of heroic men and women. I would strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in understanding the truth about resistance against occupiers, and the burdens carried by those who take on that duty.

The memorial to the men who died in the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Prague


  1. This is one of controversial subjects in Czech history. From distant point view it may look like ‘simple affair’ of killing tyrant, but in reality there is lot more to learn and understand about it. The major problem in trying for objective view is not to touch on something, which would look like ‘apologetic’ for Nazi’s terror – the one which preceded and so much more the one which followed. It is very difficult, from Czech point of view, not to be biased in some way.

    One way or the other, repercussions were severe: hundreds of Czech patriots executed mostly by guillotine, families broken, children stolen. The best take as always is from those who remember it, which is very few by now. But I have heard enough about it from my parents, no reason to doubt it.

    • Reprisals were inevitable, but we have to remember that the long term plan the Germans had was to liquidate the population and replace them with “Aryan” settlers.

      The leadership of the Czechoslovak government in exile were afraid that the western allies would make an armistice with the Germans which would leave Germany in charge of the country. They wanted to prove themselves as valuable allies so they would not be abandoned to their fate.

      It was a difficult decision to make, but it was probably the right choice given what they knew at the time. We have to be careful about applying 20/20 hindsight to historical events.

      • Based on knowledge I acquired thru time I submit to you that “armistice” Britain-Germany was out of question and every student of events leading to WWI knew it. This was true for period before the Battle of Britain and so much more so after. Put it simply, too futile proposition to materialize under “real world” circumstances.

        The agenda of war was not dictated by patriotic zeal of elected leaders, but thru interests of shrewd power-monopoly class residing above visible governments (aka City of London). Ordinary people were, just as are today, dispensable pawns. I recall and learned from wisdom of people living at the time and they confirm this direction of thought. Same of course applied today, but in more refined and ingrained form.

        Btw., as it happen by virtue of Allied agreements and post-war sphere of interests dislocation, it happen to be that it was Soviet Union who was guarantor of new Czechoslovak statehood; not discredited Western powers.

        • One must also consider the condition of Britain’s defense establishment at the time of the “Appeasement ” policy. Lloyd George didn’t have the means to defend his home soil at the time, much less credibily threaten a Continental power. He was playing for time to build the RAF. When the inevitable second crisis occurred in 1939, he had assurances from his Generals that Britain could fend off a German air attack. Then and only then could he risk war. The Czechs paid the price in the meantime.

        • I’ve been immersed in study of this era for some time. Prewar Czechoslovakia also looked to USSR for protection, even while maintaining alliance with France also. When the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact was announced, Beneš knew Czechoslovakia was cooked; the Munich Conference (which most Americans don’t know, Czechoslovakia wasn’t even allowed to attend) was just one blow of many that came rapidly. The whole nation was a pawn in a game of dictators’ chess.

          The world-class arms the Czechoslovak nation had built, understanding that Russia was their historical friend and Germany their probable enemy, mostly swelled the armories of the Nazis, and were used in the Nazis’ hubris to attack France and then Russia.

          Meanwhile the Nazis spun off Slovakia as a rump republic, and began administering Bohemia and Moravia as German territories. Not hard as they had only been politically Czech for 20 years and contained a large German ethnic minority. Every city had a German name, and many of them an overwhelming German majority, like Eger (Cheb). The westernmost Czech-majority town was Domažlice (which its large German minority, including most of the town gunsmiths, called Taus). But before the Great Depression, the Germans and Czechs seem to have gotten along. The economic squeeze inflamed nationalism on both sides.

          After the war, Soviets were initially seen as liberators by most Czechoslovak citizens (the German minority being expelled permanently postwar — payback for supporting Henlein’s SDP Nazis). For a lot of Czechs (especially) the coup of 1948 and the murder of Masaryk were the first sign of trouble with their fraternal Soviet allies.

  2. Thanks for posting that review, Ian.

    I still haven’t seen the movie, but hopefully will soon.

    Agreed with Denny on this, but reality and film often don’t have much to do with each other. War is something that you have to live through, to know intimately. Lidice and Lezaky were the first but not the last, but this was almost total war. The partisan angle is another sad story, but again….war. My family is in the Chomutov/Most area, from some small villages.

    I still honor those brave fighters and am always heartened to see that some still recognize sacrifices like this.

    • I am in line with you on your last sentence: they indeed were brave people who took the burden to “avenge” the nation, which act in turn caused more suffering. However, the central issue here is what was motivation and objectives by those who ordered this action; this is where the word “controversial” comes.

      Btw. my father-side grandfather lost his life during war time (died on 6th of April in Leipzig, just days before American forces arrival) as a result of participation in resistance. His in-memoriam War Cross is looking at me on my left.

      Take care, Denny

  3. In 1986 I visited the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Praha. The basement outer walls were still severely cratered from the German assault on the church – quiet testimony to the heroic last stand of these partisans. The Germans must have been firing 5 cm or 7.5 cm guns at the church at point blank ranges, given the sizes of the craters.

  4. I saw the film in the theater, as I knew the history involved, and thought it was excellent. I think a major reason it suffered at the box office was due to its title. While Anthropoid was the name of the operation it tells the modern movie goer, with hundreds of choices, virtually nothing. Is it another film about robots or what?? A poor decision there.

    I found the film to be very authentic. I understand that it was filmed in the Czech Republic which gave it a genuine look and feel. The weapons were correct. What it did not have was a bunch of Hollywood CGI, a silly back plot or zombies. Thank God. I prefer my history straight up.

    I am with Ian on this one. This was a heroic, real deal, act of desperation which had a huge impact on the Czechs. The film honors those involved. It is highly recommended.

  5. I ended up with Anthropoid because it came up as an “if you liked the movie you just watched, then you should like this one too” suggestion.

    The title made me think it was science fiction, but that wouldn’t make sense if I liked Siege at Jadotville, would it?

    Although I couldn’t resist shouting at the screen that they’d been captured by Hydra when Toby Jones made his first appearance.

    • “The title made me think it was science fiction, but that wouldn’t make sense if I liked Siege at Jadotville, would it?”
      Notice that it might suggest movies by actors. Thus, it would make sense to point to science fiction, if it would have several common actors.

    • Daweo,

      you might be interested to know that good number of Soviet/ Russian commanders were air-dropped during last 2-3 years of war in area of Bohemia-Moravia, so called Protectorate. They were congregating with Czech members of resistance and jointly planned and conducted actions of railways destruction, industrial sabotage ambushes and similar. It is said that they contributed significantly to the defeat of occupying regime.

  6. I regret I was a little disappointed. I preferred “Operation Daybreak” which was an earlier (1975) movie version of the same events.
    I’m sure I read that Sykes Fairbairn trained the team, and that they were crack shots with the Colt .38 super.
    Incredible and desperate bravery.

    • W.E.Fairbairn was one of the trainers, but IIRC Eric Sykes wasn’t involved. This was after his “falling out” with WEF over the Fairbairn fighting knife (not the same as the Sykes-Fairbairn), because Sykes wouldn’t help WEF push it to the SOE committee.

      Probably a correct call on Sykes’ part. The Fairbairn knife’s blade was virtually identical to the existing S-F dagger, but the hilt (rather like a modern-day low-cost steak knife) was both more expensive to make and required a single type of address every time. It also could not be thrown effectively due to he asymmetric hilt. IOW, it just wasn’t as good a weapon as the Sykes-Fairbairn that was already in production and service.

      WEF’s skills and teaching ability were undeniable. But at times he could be a bit of a prima donna.



  7. Re: “Anthropoid” The dilemma you describe is inexorably tied to the practice of counter-terrorist activities. Quite often the ONLY way to discourage the reprisals against the population by the occupational forces is to make it so intolerably painful for their upper-echelon elite to the point where they had rather tolerate the limiting of reprisals to the perpetrators that to suffer the personal pains to their persons and/or that of their loved ones. In one case we were faced with a rather sadistic leader who was unspeakably brutal to the general population plus he bragged that he could not “be touched.” Therefore, the decision was made to demonstrate our motto of, “Like Ma Bell, We Reach Out and Touch Someone!” The outcome was one shot with an illegal soft-nosed .300 Win. Mag. through both cheeks of his posterior at just over 500 meters as he conducted his morning ablutions and potty visit closely followed by a message of, “You have now OFFICIALLY been touched by XXXXX!” appeared to instill a more Christian-Like demeanor on his part toward the locals. And always remember that the most dangerous creature that walks face of this earth is a man with the strength of his convictions and no fear of Death.

    • I am afraid to have to say that the effect of this action was not to “discourage” reprisal, but just the opposite. At that time Germans were on high of their power and had things well under control. Sadly, there were also inevitable collaborators (much like in other countries of occupied Europe) who did not share views of resistance.

      • My mother never understood why old India and Qing Dynasty China fell flat on their faces against the British. She fumed and said there were enough people in both countries to mount an effective resistance (and had those people not been feudal-thinking fools, I would have agreed). But if I’m correct, both Eastern “empires” had a ludicrously corrupt and rigid class-based society, with the lowest members doing ONLY EXACTLY WHAT THEY WERE ORDERED TO DO. Warring went to the warrior classes, nobility, and peasant conscripts. Anyone doing things out of line would be treated as a bandit and thence after be tortured to death in public (rudely urinating in public got you strung up in a pillory or something like that).

        What didn’t help China apart from the Western technological advantage was the constant infighting amongst local warlords, which prevented a truly united front against the East India Company’s “security forces” and the proper British Army and Royal Navy. And if you killed a British subject in a British controlled sector, the reprisal was that you and your entire family would be:

        1. Stomped flat by elephants
        2. Tied to the muzzles of 20 pounder guns and blown to bits
        3. Drawn and Quartered by ropes tied to pack horses
        4. Killed by whatever reprisal the British commander liked

        Did I mess up?

        • India was already ruled by foreign invaders before the British arrived. The British simply replaced the previous set of foreign invaders with themselves, and proceeded to be less oppressive, less corrupt, more effective, and more just than the previous set of foreign rulers.

          The methods of execution you mention were the traditional methods applied by the local rulers. I don’t recall the British using them except against some of the rebels in the Indian Mutiny.

          The British ruled less than half of India. The rest was composed of independent “princely states” tied to the empire by defence and trade treaties. Many of those independent rulers were notorious for the brutality and ruthlessness with which they treated their citizens.

          With regards to China, Britain didn’t conquer them. They did force unequal trade treaties upon them, but then the US, and the other European colonial powers participated fully in this as well.

          • I didn’t say the British conquered China, but beat up China pretty badly. Remember that the rigid feudal ways of thinking in the Qing Dynasty Empire often got in the way of securing even the most equal ceasefire. Isolationist policies prevented the Chinese from spying (let’s assume one could buy info from a third party such as the Ottoman Empire) on the Western powers’ weapons development programs, which meant that most of the European powers’ new (steel-plated and steam-powered) warships and very new guns (both in terms of small arms and artillery) came as a shock to the warlord armies, all of whom seem to have expected the Europeans to be nothing more than stick-wielding-primitive-monkeys. The Dowager-Empress insisted that her country had no need of European manufactured goods (well, she relented and purchased Western weapons after a little while), and also insisted that Chinese goods be bought with pure silver. When the Qing authorities found out about the opium trade the British did to circumvent the exclusive “bring silver for Chinese goods” policy, they destroyed the crates of the drug and took the merchants hostage, threatening to torture them to death if the British did not produce silver as ransom payment. Guess how that ended…

            Well, it may have ended with something like this:

            Chinese general: “March!” [all Chinese troops begin approaching the British line]
            British line officer: “Ready!” [British infantry level their Pattern 1853 Enfield muskets]
            British artillery officer: “Load canister! Fire on command!” [cannons loaded with powder and shot]
            [Chinese warriors are getting closer]
            British line officer: “Aim!” [British infantrymen and artillerymen begin selecting intended victims]
            [British artillery commander raises his sword, preparing to signal the firing command]
            [Chinese are now within 400 meters of British positions]
            Chinese general: “Since those barbarians are not surrendering to our mighty army, CHARGE!”
            British officers: “FIRE!!!!!”

            Did I mess up this script?

        • The essential phenomenon to keep in mind is that a token group of people known under traditional names (such as names of nations/ states) are NEVER homogeneous and exactly alike-thinking and feeling; no such thing existed and never will be.

          That explains why at any given point in history there was present a number of those who wished arrangements of cooperation instead of confrontation with pervasive power. When “critical mass” is accumulated and prevails, they are typically called traitors and dealt with accordingly. We see same thing happening these days in plentiful variety.

  8. Great movie. Heydrich had to be killed. As an aside, one of the Resistance members who first met the assassins was carrying a Frommer Stop.

    • If I’m not mistaken here’s the stylized rundown on how the actual encounter went:

      Heydrich was on a car ride back to HQ. Gabčík jumps out of the bushes and pulls the trigger on his Sten, only to find it jammed from foliage stuck in the receiver tube. Heydrich has the car stopped and leaps out with his driver and side-arm in hand, bent on killing the would-be assassin. Kubiš jumps out of the bushes and throws a modified anti-tank grenade, totaling the car and injuring everyone (including himself)!! Heydrich and his driver are nowhere near death’s door at this time and run after the second assassin, who gets away by (painfully) bicycling away. Heydrich screams to his cohort “GET THAT B*****D!!” pointing at Gabčík (presumably Heydrich’s gun malfunctioned). The harried assassin flees on foot, wounding the chauffeur with his own pistol (chase is now over). Heydrich collapses of blood loss or something, then dies after German medics rush him to the hospital… Later, German anti-partisan troops close in on the assassins in the church but get mostly mowed down by Sten sprays and grenades aimed at the door. Assassins commit suicide with cyanide after running dry on ammunition, thinking the operation has failed.

      Did I miss anything?

      • Just that Heydrich;

        1. Wasn’t carrying a gun. His driver had a P.38,and was apparently incapacitated before he could use it.

        2. Heydrich died four days later, not from blood loss but from peritonitis, aka “blood poisoning”, apparently due to the upholstery of the back of the front seat (leather over horsehair padding, plus springs) being driven into his chest cavity along with uniform cloth, etc., by the force of the grenade explosion in the front seat next to the driver.

        MORAL; In any fight between a guy with a pistol and a guy with a hand grenade, the smart money’s on the latter.



      • You might be interested that at time of my studies I often went thru exactly that spot where attack on Heydrich was carried on. People used to called it colloquially “Heydrich’s turn”.

        Yeah, it was probably ideal spot to choose, if it was not for malfunctioning Gabcik’s Sten gun.

  9. This brings up the point of “why can’t we defeat insurgencies anymore”? One reason might be that when the “youth” of a village blow up a passing NATO vehicle instead of collective punishment to discourage further outrages a civil affairs team or development company arrive to provide jobs, wells, food, health care etc. Shortly after the unit responsible for that area is rotated out another incident will occur after which the “elders” will deplore violence and explain that if they only had $ 35,000 USD (the limit they know US commanders can spend without higher authority) for “a project” the “youths” would have hope and not join the local villains (who are always outsiders). Anyone up for occupying Syria?

  10. I’d like to see a similar movie made about a similarly daring operation, the assassination of Rehavam Ze’evi by the PFLP. Despite being the highest-ranking Israeli official ever dispatched, he was targeted not for his position but his personal views, such as advocating a somewhat Hitlerian(Jacksonian) “final solution” to eradicate the Palestinian population from Greater Israel.

  11. When people talking about the assassination of Heydrich, the first thing in my head was that failed STEN gun. then the magical holy grenade. Especially when on Forgotten Weapons. Recently you people just think tooooo much.
    If even wiping out such a son of ***** nasty nazi ***** like Heydrich could bring such lot debates, then the murder of Admiral Yamamoto should be considered completely cold-blooded brutal war crime(and the strategic bombing, the nuke…). Seriously? That’s a WAR.
    Don’t turn to the PC/SJW way please, this is one of the very limited non-non-sense websites I can still enjoy. Please keep it that way.

  12. The most likely reason SOE went along with Anthropoid isn’t obvious unless you know the politics of the Nazi hierarchy.

    If you are familiar with the Wannsee conference (or have just seen the movie Conspiracy starring Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich), the reason Heydrich chaired the meeting was that he was commonly accepted by the Nazi higher-ups as Hitler’s “heir apparent”, the man who would be Fuhrer if anything happened to Adolf. This didn’t sit well with several others, notably Martin Bormann, who saw himself in that spot after Rudolf Hess’ “defection” to England.

    Heydrich’s status in the Nazi Party’s headshed was known to SOE, possibly due to being tipped off by someone who didn’t much like Heydrich.

    Most likely candidate? Gen. Gehlen, head of Abwehr IIIF (Rusland) who later went to work for U.S. Army Intelligence with amazing speed in May-June ’45. As Len Deighton observed, most of his agents never even missed a paycheck. (Funeral in Berlin, App. 2) if he had in fact previously “set up” Heydrich, that would be a big plus on his resume’, so to speak.

    Killing the anointed No. 2 to the enemy head of state in wartime falls into the “worth doing for its own sake” category. And the Czech resistance had the opportunity, and were willing to take the risk- and the consequences.

    I think it really wasn’t any more complicated than that. Just IMHO.



    • As I alluded to before, Russians did not show interest in liquidation of Heydrich, it was London’s project. Therefore, from this point of view it is obvious this was part of high-end political agenda borne in Western capitals.

      The next tyrant on Czech “throne” K.H.Frank was just as cruel, if not more – for main part as conductor of mentioned reprisals.

      The ongoing and unusual interest in Heydrich is apparently stemming from the fact that he was proponent of “final solution”.

    • Actually, the guy who really wanted to do this was Eduard Beneš, to show the UK that the Czechoslovak government in exile was really part of the war (and therefore, deserved some consideration in postwar planning). It was controversial on his own staff. ISTR that František Moravec, his intelligence officer, warned him presciently about the reprisals.

      In the end, of course, the Nazi appetite for reprisal shocked even the hard-edged Moravec. Mot people have heard the name of Lidice, but look up the parallel (and unknown, in the Anglosphere) destruction of Lezaky. (Someone up-thread, maybe Denny, mentioned this). The French seem to think Ouradour was sui generis but it was just Nazis being Nazis. You have to wonder how many villages met this end in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, too.

      Nazis: snappy uniforms, awesome guns, but the world’s better off without ’em.

  13. Ian, where did you see this? One of the (few) disadvantages of life on the Seacoast is the late (or non-) arrival of popular culture. I’ve been waiting for this for some time.

    A movie that closely follows an event can be hard to make fit the Save The Cat! profile moviegoers now expect. Another example is the Tom Cruise movie about the assassination of Hitler. They stuck close enough to the actual events to make it hard for people who didn’t know the history to follow, and then, Cruise is a polarizing actor.

  14. The Germans were bad enemies, but the British the traitors! What is worse? In 1938 Britain signed the Munich treaty with Nazi Germany treaty and thus broke a treaty with Czechoslovakia. In 1939 Czechoslovakia was occupied by Germany, after France and England refuse to fulfil their duty against Czechoslovakia. During the war, many Czech ans Slovak soldiers served in the British army and helped to protect England, e.g. during the battle of Britain. And after the war… guess what? The British requested payments from Czechoslovakia for all Czech soldiers’ expenses during the war. If this is not another betrayal?! Fucking British traitors!!! Shame!!!

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