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Non-Review Review: Anthropoid

“Concentrate on the details.”

The phrase is repeated in Anthropoid, and it speaks to the aesthetic of Sean Ellis’ tense Second World War assassination thriller. Ellis is very much fascinated with the details. This is reflected in the standard clandestine war movie fare; the reliance on maps and the maintaining of schedules, the decoding of messages and the construction of weapons. However, it is also reflected in Ellis’ directorial choices, with an emphasis on tight claustrophobic shots and meticulous care to ensure what the audience can or cannot see at any given moment.

Wet work.

Wet work.

The result is an engaging entry in the subgenre, a familiar story elevated by the craft on display. Ellis very skilfully and successfully ramps up the tension over the film’s two-hour runtime, mainly by keeping in complete control of the frame. Anthropoid is distinguished from other undercover war movies through the sheer scale of paranoia and dread that Ellis manages to generate, leading to a spectacular (and sustained) pay-off in the film’s third act. As its protagonists argue, the details are key.

There a few minor problems. Ellis is over-reliant on shaky camera work to keep the audience off-balance, a technique that is occasionally disorienting in a literal rather than a figurative sense. There are also moments when Anthropoid drifts away from its gritty grounding into easy visual metaphors and stock war movie tropes; crushed symbols of innocence trampled underfoot and a soaring triumphant score over silent scenes of carnage. However, these are the exception rather than the rule. As long as Anthropoid focuses on the details, it never loses track of itself.

Driving ambition.

Driving ambition.

The plot of Anthropoid was inspired by the true story of the Czech resistance. Surrendered to Nazi Germany by the western powers at Munich in September 1938, Czechoslovakia is often neglected in casual discussions of the Second World War. The popular history of the conflict focuses on the importance of the country in the lead-up to the conflict and in the aftermath of the war, with very little focus on what was happening in the country during the conflict. The Czech resistance is seldom afforded the prestige or pride given to the French resistance, for example.

Anthropoid concerns the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi official known as “the Butcher of Prague” for his brutality. Following the outbreak of the war in Europe, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš parachute into their old country with orders from the government-in-exile to orchestrate the death of that most prominent German official. Along the way, Gabčík and Kubiš find themselves dealing with the local Czech resistance and while avoiding detection. The result is suitably tense.

Gunning for the Germans.

Gunning for the Germans.

This is all very standard stuff. Second World War assassination thrillers are a familiar subgenre of themselves, to the point that audiences are familiar with the loose arc of such tales. After all, the Second World War is such a cultural flashpoint that the ending is pretty much assured going into it. For its first half, Anthropoid is a very effective example of this familiar set of plot points and story beats. Gabčík and Kubiš face resentment from the fighters on the ground; they are constantly afraid of the Gestapo; they strike up friendships with the locals; Kubiš falls in love.

Indeed, there is a sense that this is more of an outline of a plot than a plot itself. In particular, the characters seem quite thinly sketched, drawn in very broad terms. Gabčík is a patriot to his core, a man devoted to the mission and willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to accomplish his goals. Kubiš is more innocent, somebody who still harbours notions of a life after the conflict and who yearns for some normality in the chaos. However, these feel like broad strokes. In particular, a romance between Kubiš and Marie Kovárníková seems underdeveloped.

Putting the "nation" back in "assassination."

Putting the “nation” back in “assassination.”

To be fair, these early sequences have two key advantages. The most obvious is Ellis’ direction. Paranoia and mistrust are expected in stories like this, but Ellis is very effective at creating a sense of uncertainty and unease. In these early sequences, the hand-held camera feels almost like the work of a documentarian, paying close attention to the people inhabiting the world around Gabčík and Kubiš. There is a fascination with looking and watching, cultivating a feeling of constant surveillance; shadows moving under a door, stolen glances, developing film, binoculars.

The film’s casting is another strength, in particular Cillian Murphy as Jozef Gabčík and Anna Geislerová as Lenka Fafková. Murphy is a great actor, but his greatest skill is the ease with which he blends into the world around him. Although Murphy has appeared in some of the most influential and iconic films of the twenty-first century, from Batman Begins to 28 Days Later, he frequently feels like a man out of time. Period work like Peaky Blinders or The Wind That Shakes the Barley feel like a more comfortable fit. Murphy looks like a man out of time.

Cillian time.

Cillian time.

Murphy brings a steely resolve to Gabčík that anchors the character, creating a sense of depth that is somewhat lacking from a script that treats the character as an archetype. Murphy is matched pace-for-pace by Geislerová, who provides an effective mirror to Murphy’s silent stoicism. Indeed, the chemistry between Murphy and Geislerová makes them much more interesting than the film’s nominal romantic leads, suggesting an unlikely connection between two shell-shocked veterans.

However, the most interesting aspect of Anthropoid comes around the half-way point, where the film quickly and effectively changes gears. The sudden and dynamic (but entirely organic) shift allows Ellis to vary tone a bit. Anthropoid never stops being a tense war thriller, but its character shifts somewhat in the second half. The tension becomes a little less familiar, although it is still driven by a sense of harsh inevitability. Pressure mounts and tension builds, eventually leading to a stunning and prolonged climax.

The piece de resistance...

The piece de resistance…

Ellis’ direction is relatively tight throughout the film. There is a sense of control, that Ellis wants the audience to be keenly aware of what is being shown… and what is not being shown. One effective sequence has the camera focus on the face of an interrogating officer while the interrogation can be heard off-screen. Later, the camera pans up the body of a grievously wounded fighter only to stop at the neck. Although the footage is shot on a hand-held camera, the shot remains fixed below the neck, as if inviting the audience to wonder what happened the character’s face.

There is some clumsiness to the film, that feels particularly apparent when contrasted with the meticulous work done elsewhere. Anthropoid is never more effective than when it feels gritty and grounded, rooted in the harrowing brutality and looming paranoia of work behind the lines. However, there are points at which Ellis allows the film to drift away from that more grounded aesthetic to more symbolic imagery. A child’s violin is crushed under the boot of a Nazi officer, in the most blatant example. A violent sequence is played silent, set to an orchestral soundtrack.

The details of the plan are not German to the discussion at hand...

The details of the plan are not German to the discussion at hand…

Indeed, there are points at which Anthropoid almost gets carried away with itself. The climax of the film is spectacular, but the use of hand-held footage is disorienting and distracting. That is the point, of course, but it comes perilously close to inducing nausea when seen on a large enough screen. The shaky cam work adds a visceral quality to the action scenes, but it occasionally feels overplayed. There is a sense that Anthropoid might have done well to tone that directorial choice down as the action built to a crescendo.

Still, these are relatively minor complaints. Anthropoid is a tense and paranoid war thriller with an engaging attention to detail.

4 Responses

  1. This sounds sounds like a very interesting film. Is it getting a release in America?
    I also agree that Cillian Murphy is a great actor, which is why it infuriates me that he was so wasted in The Dark Knight trilogy. I really think he could have been a great scarecrow. Possibly, one similar to the one Jeffrey Combs played in the New Batman Adventures. I always thought his role in Inception in which he has to run a wide gamut of emotions was Nolan’s way of apologizing for not using Murphy more. If Nolan ever does make a bond film, I would hope he would cast Murphy as the villain.

    • I believe it may already have had a very limited release in the states back in August. But I heard very little buzz about it.

      I actually really like Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow because he feels like a constant thorn in Batman’s side. Not a big deal, not a city-wide threat, but a great example of how crime in Gotham is changing. It’s something that I feel is misisng from the worldbuilding of the Marvel movies. There have been almost a decade of supervillains in that fictional world, and not one of them is involved in the drug trade or laundering money or the more banal criminal activities? Then again, the Marvel films really lack a villain bench as good as Batman’s.

      (I also like the recurring suggestion that the Cillian Murphy Scarecrow really isn’t very good at being a criminal, whether super or otherwise. In that he fails to understand the basic mechanics of the drug trade.)

      I wonder if Heath Ledger’s Joker would have made a similar appearance or cameo in The Dark Knight Rises, had Heath Ledger not passed away. That said, I can almost imagine Ledger’s Joker presiding over the kangaroo court, even though it’s hard to see him as a “joiner.” (He’s more likely to be trying to force people to cross the bridge to escalate the situation between Bane and the authorities. That’s my personal fanon. That or he just sits out the whole thing in Arkham, watching.) Of course, one imagines The Dark Knight Rises would have been completely and almost unrecognisably different had Heath Ledger lived.

      • “Then again, the Marvel films really lack a villain bench as good as Batman’s.” Does any superhero, Marvel or DC, have as good a rogues gallery as Batman. The only hero who I think comes close is James Bond when it comes to having so many identifiable villains.

        I see your point about the Scarecrow. I suppose I could be influenced by Nostalgia. He was always my favorite villain when I was a little kid as whenever I watched Batman TAS as a kid,he was the only one who ever actually unnerved me.

      • Interestingly, I think Spider-Man has a rogues gallery almost as good as that of Batman. But you’re right, he very clearly has the a-list of comic book rogues galleries. (Just look at how much of Suicide Squad is tied to him.)

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