Rated R. Running time: 1 hour min.
Our content ratings: Violence 6; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the insolence of tyrants.
Title cards at the beginning set up this true story. In 1938 Great Britain and France at Munich have given Czechoslovakia away to Hitler, and when the Nazis occuppy it, SS General Reinhard Heydrich becomes the ruler of the nation. Considered the “architect of the Final Solution,” he was so brutal that he earned the name of “The Butcher of Prague.”
The action begins in December 1941 with two agents from the government in exile in London parachuting at night into a forest outside of Prague. Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) quickly learn how dangerous their mission will be when they catch the partisan who had met them t rying to telephone the German authorities. Making their escape to the city, they manage to make contact with Uncle Hajský (Toby Jones), a local resistance leader. When he asks about their mission, they reply it is “Operation Anthropoid,” the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. He is next only to Hitler and Himmler in the ranks of the Nazi Party. Not everyone is pleased with the goal of the mission. Partisan Ladislav Vanek(Marcin Dorocinski) asks them if they are mad. He is certain that the Nazis will kill hundreds in reprisal for the killing of such a high ranking official.
There is irony in Jan and Josef being Czech and Slovak respectively. They were willing to die for a unified nation that after WW 2 and the Cold War would break in two. The pair are placed in the home of kind-hearted Mrs. Moravec (Alena Mihulova), whose teenaged son is a violin student. The agents are drawn to two lovely women Marie Kovárníková (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka Fafková (Anna Geislerova) who agree to pose as their girlfriends that makes thir moving about seem natural. During the days that follow while the men try to catch glimpses of Heydrich and figure out his travel routine between office and home, one of the relationships does blossom into a romance.
As the men and women move through Prague’s streets they pass by hundreds of heavily armed German troops. More upsetting is the occasional corpse of a Jew hanging from a lamp post. There are also several other soldiers who have been flown from England and dropped by parachute into the country. One of them, Josef Bublik, recites Shakespeare’s words from Julia Caesar, ”Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” The words come to mean a lot to Josef Gabcik, whose hands tremble when he holds a pistol. This becomes more pronounced as the moment for the killing approaches late in May, 1942.
The attack on May 27 by Josef and Jan on Heydrich’s open-topped Mercedes runs afoul when Josef’s Sten submachine gun will not feed its bullets. Heydrich stands up in the car to fire his Luger at his attacker. Jan throws at the car the grenade he has hidden in his briefcase. Even though it does not enter the car itself, the explosion hurls shrapnel into the Nazi’s body so that when he tries to chase the fleeing Jan, he staggers and falls. The attackers barely make good their escape, but neither they nor all of those connected with the plot will find lasting safety. Heydrich is not killed immediately, so they partisans think they have failed. However, despite the efforts of Czech and then SS doctors, the Butcher of Prague dies from his wounds on June 4.
Nazi retaliation is even worse than feared. 13,000 Czechs are rounded up, and an estimated 5000 executed, including two whole villages suspected of harboring the plotters. The partisans find shelter in the Orthodox Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius during the massive manhunt mounted by the Nazis. They still hope to escape the city.
Using torture and a huge reward, the Nazis learn of the hideout and on June 18 send 750 soldiers to seize the men. This proves far more difficult than the over confident Germans had expected. The partisans manage to stave off their attackers for seven hours, despite the heavy machine gun fire, smoke, and water poured into the church crypt. Refusing to be captured, the patriots either shoot themselves with their last bullet or take a cyanide capsule. This heroic sequence is as exciting as any phoney superhero battle, the uneven struggle, similar to that of the much large one that will happen in Poland the following year when a relatively small army of Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto hold off the Nazi army for over a month. (See the film Uprising.)
The film celebrates the bravery of those who resisted the takeover and brutalizing of their country, Shakespeare’s words befittingly applied to them. But the film also displays the madness of war, and the often repeated warning that violence always provokes more violence. Films such as this can be difficult for those espousing non-violence. We are obviously on the side of the oppressed and against the oppressor, yet our heroes are plotting to kill a man. Over in German itself German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once a pacifist, is working with a network of military and civilians who will attempt to assassinate the No. 1 Nazi. Bonhoeffer had once hoped to visit with the world’s great apostle of nonviolence Mohandas Gandhi. Let me end at this point by including words the Mahatma once wrote, words that apply to the partisans in this film:
“Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defense or for the defense of the defenseless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission. The latter befits neither man nor woman. Under violence, there are many stages and varieties of bravery. Every man must judge this for himself. No other person can or has the right.”
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of VP.
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