The 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.