Resistance has a code name.
With the rise of right-wing nationalism in the UK and America – as demonstrated by support for both Brexit and Donald Trump – many commentators have expressed concerns that 2016 looks a lot like the late 1920s and early 1930s, with figures like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage earning comparisons to people in the Nazi high command. It remains to be seen if those comparisons are apt or hyperbole, but it does highlight something else that people have been pointing out recently: the rise of right-wing nationalism, whether more benign than its German and Italian iterations, seems to be coming on the heels of the fading away of living memories of World War II and the Holocaust. There aren’t that many survivors left, and as George Santayana reminds us, those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. But as the number of survivors dwindles, it becomes harder to see those stories as essential. Which is a double shame, because it’s not like we’ve heard all the stories of World War II yet. Exhibit A in the case is Anthropoid, a dramatic thriller that takes on a Czech plot to kill an infamous Nazi. It’s a carefully-observed drama that keeps the screws to the audience while never abandoning their intellect.
Before World War II, Hitler demanded that Germany be given Czechoslovakia, and the Allies appeased him rather than starting a war. Then Hitler invaded Poland the next year, making the rest history. But Czechoslovakia didn’t simply turn over for the Germans, so Hitler sent Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe, Spectre), “The Butch of Prague,” to quell resistance and ensure that the country’s factory production continued. Anthropoid is the name given to the plot to assassinate Heydrich. Jozef (Cillian Murphy, The Wind That Shakes the Barley) and Jan (Jamie Dornan, 50 Shades of Grey) initially left Czechoslovakia for London, where they’ve been in contact with the government-in-exile. Now the pair have been parachuted back in, with Heydrich in their sights. But they need to work with the local resistance, including Jan (Toby Jones, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), without getting caught to achieve their ambitious goal.
The war film has become a genre onto itself, with its own set of tropes and familiar plot points. Certainly films come along that challenge the genre (like Saving Private Ryan), but it remains surprisingly resilient. Which is why Anthropoid should be commended for not really being a war film. Instead of all the guts’n’glory style of a war film, Anthropoid plays out like a dramatic thriller. This decision has two important benefits.
If you follow along in your history books, you know exactly what happened with Operation Anthropoid. And most war films kind of count on viewers knowing the broad strokes of the history they’re portraying. In contrast, Anthropoid takes a more thriller-oriented approach. We, like the characters, are on pins and needles waiting to see if the assassination plot can be put into action before everyone gets caught. For those viewers with the patience to sit through the slow, meticulous build-up, Anthropoid offers slow-burn thrills.
But Anthropoid isn’t an empty thriller. The film also tackles dramatic territory by matching up the story of the assassination plot with the consequences of the assassination. Very few viewers are likely to object to the mission to bump off the notoriously brutal Heydrich, especially now that we know how instrumental he was in the Final Solution. But the film wrings dramatic weight out of the fact that Jozef and Jan’s plan is necessary doesn’t mean it’s without consequences. Not only are the assassins in danger, they put everyone who helps them in danger. And their plot, whether successful or not, has consequences for the whole nation. Anthropoid could have been a rip-snorting, devil-may-care assassination thriller. Instead, it lets viewers sit with the weight of what Jan and Jozef must do, and the consequences (like mass torture and killing) that are likely to result from their success.
The film is also anchored by excellent talent behind the camera and in front of it. The film’s claustrophobic, 16mm production style keeps tension high throughout the film. But its real selling point are the performances from Murphy and Dornan. These are men at the end of their rope, pragmatic Czech patriots who put the mission in front of their survival. Murphy and Dornan do an amazing job of humanizing these characters, making them more than patriotic assassin cartoons. Toby Jones is also great as one of the Czech Resistance leaders, bringing his usual gravitas to the role.
The film’s Blu-ray is also pretty great. The 16mm source is well-represented with this 2.39:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. Grain is fairly heavy, but tight and well-resolved. Detail is generally strong, and the film’s slightly-desaturated color scheme is appropriately saturated. Black levels are deep and dark, with no significant compression problems. The DTS-HD 5.1 master audio track is also excellent. Like the film, the track is largely quiet but intense. When it matters, though, directionality and dynamic range are excellent. Dialogue is always clean and well-prioritized.
Extras start with a 30 minute making-of featurette that covers a lot of details of the production, talking to actors and crew as well as giving background video. We also get a set of storyboard-to-screen comparisons. These are interesting because the filmmakers used scale models instead of drawings or 3D animatics for pre-production.
The film isn’t an action-packed thrill-ride. It’s much closer to an Oscar contender than a typical thriller, even if thriller elements are in play. So many viewers might be disappointed by the film’s meticulous pace. Because the film is willing to grapple with the reality of Project Anthropoid, the film doesn’t have a sunny ending in the slightest.
Anthropoid probably doesn’t quite have the star power or promotional push to make it an Oscar contender, but it’s at that level of quality. The film takes history and makes viewers consider the horrors of war in a way that feels different from other films. Add a decent Blu-ray release, and this is one to watch for history buffs and fans of tense drama.