You shouldn’t judge a movie by its title. “Anthropoid” sounds like something from science fiction—a life-supporting astral body in an exoplanetary system, perhaps, or a new type of robotic insect in a “Starship Troopers” sequel. The real Anthropoid, and the fictionalized movie it inspired, is nothing so exciting or fanciful. Operation Anthropoid was the code name given to a group of exiled Czechoslovakian soldiers in 1942. The operation’s mission? Parachute back into their German-occupied homeland and assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, aka the “Butcher of Prague,” Hitler’s third-in-command.
We follow two of these resistance soldiers, Jozef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan), from their rough landing in a snow-capped forest through their underground rendezvous with friends and handlers, their romances with a pair of local girls/co-conspirators, their reconnaissance missions and the assassination attempt itself. If you know your World War II history, no spoiler alert is necessary here, but I’ll preserve the mystery for those (like myself) unfamiliar with this gruesome subplot in the ghastly narrative of Nazi genocide.
Suffice it to say that Operation Anthropoid is enacted only about halfway through the picture, and what follows is sensation-numbing in its unrelenting bloodshed, with each spray of machine-gun fire, exploded grenade and “enhanced interrogation technique” registering like so much acrid medicine we’re forced to swallow. “Anthropoid” is as brutal as Tarantino without any of the fun: It’s the anti-“Inglourious Basterds,” a stone-cold-sober exercise in wartime futility.
The film is as painful an experience as you’re likely to have in a cinema this year, and while you might say the same for the Oscar-winning “Son of Saul,”that Nazi drama’s claustrophobic formalism created such visual and aural poetry from what wasn’t shown that it laid the groundwork for a new kind of cinema. But Sean Ellis, who co-wrote and directed “Anthropoid,” films this excruciating story like any other historical prestige picture, its editing rhythms familiar beat by beat. It even succumbs to Spielbergian sentimentality at the very end, failing to acknowledge that the best WWII dramas—“Rome, Open City,” “Downfall”—strove for and achieved documentary authenticity.
Moreover, the more killing we see in the parachuters’ protracted battle with the Third Reich, the less edifying the experience becomes. Under the bombardment of sound and fury, we’re left adrift, searching for a justification for time masochistically spent. We’re left to ponder the still-lingering internal conflicts of the first half—the soldiers’ fear of mortality wrestling with their military duty, as their unenviable task is consumed by misgivings—and with the deflating feeling that even seemingly heroic acts of resistance can have disastrous ramifications. And, yeah, that war is hell. But you knew that already.
“Anthropoid” opens across South Florida today at theaters including Living Room Theaters, Cinemark Palace and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton; Movies of Delray; Movies of Lake Worth; Regal Royal Palm Beach; and Cobb Downtown at the Gardens.