November 21, 2018

Czech patriots slay Nazi ‘hangman’ in ‘Anthropoid’

Before the tide of World War II turned at Stalingrad and El Alamein, on the Russian and North African fronts, the year 1942 started as a dark one for Allied forces battling the seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine.

A brief flash of light brightened the gloom on May 27, however, when two Czechoslovakian commandos assassinated Reinhard Heydrich in broad daylight on a busy Prague street.

SS Gen. Heydrich was the official Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, which consisted of the German-occupied western part of Czechoslovakia, and he quickly earned the sobriquets of “The Hangman” and “The Butcher of Prague” for ruthlessness that impressed even the top echelons of the Nazi regime. Adolf Hitler dubbed Heydrich “the man with the iron heart,” after the general proved his mettle first as one of the chief organizers of Kristallnacht and then of the “Final solution of the Jewish problem.” (Ironically, Heydrich had been bullied as a schoolboy on the suspicion that he had one or more Jewish ancestors in his family tree.)

The assassination of Heydrich and the subsequent revenge execution of 340 men, women and children in the village of Lidice was a major news story at the time, but it was overshadowed by Allied battles and victories in Europe and the Pacific in the subsequent three years of the war.

British filmmaker Sean Ellis had never heard of the Heydrich assassination but became fascinated when he saw a short documentary on the case.

In broad strokes, the plot began in late 1941, when the Czechoslovak government and army in exile, headquartered in London, decided it had to take some action against the German occupiers of their country.

After intensive training, two men were selected for Operation Anthropoid. Josef Gabcik is portrayed by Cillian Murphy and Jan Kubis by Jamie Dornan (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) in the new film “Anthropoid.”

Jamie Dornan is Jan Kubis, Charlotte LeBon is a resistance fighter in the film. Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

In December 1941 (also the month of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), the two commandos parachuted back into their native country and spent five months hiding out with a family in Prague, scouting the terrain and refining their plans.

Heydrich, secure in his sense of power and contempt for the hitherto docile population, rode around Prague in an open car, accompanied only by his driver.

On May 27, 1942, Kubis and Gabcik struck, opening fire as the Protector’s Mercedes negotiated a hairpin curve. Heydrich fired back with his pistol but was severely wounded and died a few days later, followed by an impressive Nazi state funeral.

History — and the movie — might better have ended on this note of triumph.

Fleeing the scene of the shooting, the two commandos at first hid in the nearby Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius Cathedral, finally retreating under German fire to the church’s crypt. Their last stand takes up most of the second half of the film and compensates
in action for the slower first half, which also includes romances between the two heroes and a pair of attractive female freedom

Ellis, 45, a native of Brighton, England, did quadruple duty on “Anthropoid” as producer, director, co-writer and cinematographer. The latter skill, honed as a commercial and fashion photographer, Ellis attributes mainly to his childhood dyslexia, for which he compensated through highly developed visual skills. He said his film’s budget came to about $20 million, including creating replicas of the cathedral and of the 1930s Mercedes that carried Heydrich to his doom.

The movie has been well received in Europe, Ellis said, and when he talked at a Czech school about his work, he realized that the wartime occupation of their country remains a passionate subject of debate for students.

In the story of the Heydrich assassination and razing of Lidice in 1942, more than one filmmaker soon realized the possibilities for an irresistible action movie, pitting patriots against the most evil of Nazis. As early as 1943, three movies — “Hangmen Also Die,” “The Silent Village” and “Hitler’s Madman” — were shown in theaters, followed after the war by “Operation Daybreak,” “Lidice,” “Conspiracy” and now “Anthropoid.”

Coming next is the French movie “HHhH.” The mysterious title is an acronym referring to Heydrich’s hold on SS leader Heinrich Himmler and the source of much of “The Hangman’s” influence. In German, the acronym stands for “Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich,” which translates to “Himmler’s Brain is named Heydrich.”

Studio publicity for ”Anthropoid” claims that the assassination of Heydrich “changed the course of the war and the fate of Europe forever.” That is, of course, massive hyperbole, but Operation Anthropoid did hearten the forces battling Hitler and, through its example, spur resistance to the Nazi conquest of Europe.

“Anthropoid” opens Aug. 12 at the Landmark Theatre in West Los Angeles, as well as in Anaheim, Irvine and Laguna Niguel in Orange County.