The Second World War exerts a peculiar hold over filmmakers. Although we’re half-way through the centenary of the Great War, and fifteen years into the post-9/11 ‘forever war’ on terror, it’s the 1939-45 conflict that continues to fascinate. Unsurprisingly, the legacy of this period remains bitterly contested. 1
Sean Ellis’s Anthropoid is one of the most recent manifestations of this trend. His is the first of two new dramatizations of the assassination of Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942. Cédric Jimenez’s rendering of the novel HHhH follows later in the year.
I should confess a long-standing research interest in the assassination. 2 Seventy years after the event we have a pretty clear idea of the facts, as well as the main protagonists. 3 We know the primary rationale for the attack was rooted in the shameful legacy of the Munich Agreement, as well as in the labyrinthine, fractious and downright dangerous milieu of inter-Allied relations. 4 The attack was designed to secure Allied – both west and east – support for Czechoslovakia’s restoration after the war (including the re-incorporation of Slovakia, at the time allied to Berlin).
The 1000s executed following the assassination, and the annihilation of the villages of Lidice and Ležáky became global symbols of Nazi Germany’s barbarity long before Auschwitz. ‘Lidice Lives’ was emblazoned on Czechoslovak tanks fighting on the eastern front. By the war’s end the villages’ obliteration was used to help justify the forced removal of millions of German speaking civilians from the restored country. 5
Questions still remain about who knew what when, and whether it was wholly successful. The attack also marked the effective curtailment of SOE’s hitherto enthusiastic involvement with the Czechoslovak resistance. 6 At best, the undoubted heroism of those involved notwithstanding, the attack on Heydrich’s should probably be considered a Pyrrhic victory.
Filmmakers tackling historical subject-matter all face the same problem: how to compress a complex, often morally ambiguous series of events, such as those set out above, into a comprehensible and financier/audience friendly narrative. 7 Short cuts have to be made, complexities simplified and neat story arcs constructed. 8
So how was the film? To be fair it was better than I’d feared. But it wasn’t a total success, especially compared to Ellis’s earlier Metro Manila.
Ellis and his team decided to take a conventional approach, and to limit themselves to the parachutists’ arrival, linger on their extended stay and romantic entanglements, before moving on to the assassination and aftermath. They made good use of the Prague locations, a stellar cast and heroic efforts had clearly been made on a modest budget to maintain historical accuracy. Unfortunately, a devotion to accuracy is not always enough.
The lack of context and pacing was a bit odd. Assassination is by definition a political act, yet the political context seems to have been replaced by a decidedly personal focus on the emotions of the agents. Heydrich appears fleetingly, while Communists, Quislings and Sudeten Germans are conspicuous by their absence.
One can’t help but wonder why they took this anodyne approach. I suspect the answer lies with the film’s Czech backers, including the Ministry of Defence, who may have wished to avoid the subject’s grittier aspects. Presumably they wanted a rendering of the story unencumbered by any awkward baggage from the immediate post-war or communist periods.
This is a shame, as these knotty details are what makes the story so fascinating. Instead we get the simplistic goodies vs. baddies – an infantile, whitewashed version of the war.
And the less I say about the ‘Czech’ accents employed by some on screen the better. If Netflix can use Colombian Spanish with verve and aplomb in Narcos, I’m really not sure why we couldn’t hear more Czech here.
Ultimately Anthropoid comes across as a decent enough retelling of director Lewis Gilbert’s (of James Bond fame) 1975 version of the story: Operation Daybreak – with echoes of Jirí Sequens’s earlier Assassination. Both made in the communist era. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s hardly pushing the boundaries of the genre. 9 More films about the Second World War are on their way, but I can’t help thinking that, while the obsession with the era continue and disputes over events rumble on, we won’t look back on these as examples of the genre’s Golden Age.
Martin D. Brown is Associate Professor of International History and Associate Dean for Research at The American International University in London. His research focuses on European diplomatic history, particularly British foreign policy during the era of Détente leading up to the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. You can find him on twitter @.
Image: SS Brigadier and Head of the Bavarian Police, Reinhard Heydrich, in his office, 1934 [via Wikicommons].
- Harry Bone, ‘Putin backs WW2 myth in new Russian film’, BBC Monitoring ; James Chapman, ‘Television and History: The World at War,’ Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 31, no. 2 (June 1, 2011): 247-75; Jan T. Gross, ‘Eastern Europe’s Crisis of Shame’, 13 October 2015, Project Syndicate. ↩
- M. D. Brown, Dealing with Democrats. The British Foreign Office’s relations with the Czechoslovak émigrés in Great Britain, 1939-1945, Peter Lang, 2006; Brown, ‘Setting Europe ablaze?: The Special Operations Executive’s (SOE) attempts to foster resistance in Central Europe and its relations with the Czechoslovak Government-in-exile, 1940-1945’, in M. Rady and P. László (eds.), Resistance, Rebellion and Revolution in Hungary and Central Europe: Commemorating 1956, UCL SSEES, 2008, pp. 145-58. ↩
- Heydrich, Dr Eduard Beneš the Czechoslovak leader in exile, his intelligence chief František Moravec, SOE’s liaison officer Peter Wilkinson, and the two ‘patriots’, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, dispatched to Prague. ↩
- The film is incorrect when it suggests that the Munich agreement was annulled in the wake of Heydrich’s death. It wasn’t. The British Government denounced the ‘terms and consequences of the Munich Agreement’ on 5 August 1942, but the agreement remained on the Statue books until the early 1990s. One only need to compare the fate of the Czechoslovak Government in Exile with that of the Poles in London to see how deadly a game this was, and how high the stakes. ↩
- Events that remain a sensitive issue in the Czech Republic to this day: Brown, ‘History is too important to be left to politicians’, UCL SSEES Research Blog, 10 July 2013. ↩
- The two organisations continued to work together, but following personnel changes at SOE the close relations of 1939 to 1942 were never replicated. Moravec looked increasingly to Washington for support, and Communist backed partisans were in the ascendancy. See Brown, ‘The S.O.E. and the failure of the Slovak National Uprising’ History Today, vol. 54, no. 12 (December 2004), 39-45. ↩
- Estonian director, Elmo Nüganen’s film 1944: Forced to Fight was also part funded by Estonia’s Ministry of Defence. ↩
- See discussions by Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Robert Rosenstone, Hayden White, Natalie Zenon-Davies and others. Also 9-point taxonomy of historical film by Robert Brent Toplin, Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood, University of Kansas Press, 2002, pp. 17-50. ↩
- The lack of dynamism or novelty is even more apparent when you compare it other recent offerings such as Saul Dibb’s underrated Suite Française, Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness or László Nemes’s harrowing Son of Saul; or indeed Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, Paul Katis’s Kajaki: The True Story, or Tobias Lindholm’s A War. Never mind classics such as Elem Klimov’s Come and See or Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. ↩