Anthropoid (2016)

What does one seek in the experience of viewing a movie? Most likely answer is: being entertained. It is just one of numerous modern day distractions competing for one’s time, money and attention. One would just sit, chew whatever that fits in one’s mouth, moving one’s gaze from various screens until the lights go out. If this description fits your idea of watching moving pictures, or a general picture of a good time, then you should perhaps allow yourself to be staggered by an exceptional effort titled Anthropoid: directed and co-written by Sean Ellis, this quality feature forcefully and terminally awakes you from a dogmatic slumber that is ‘your life’. It recounts the story of the protagonists who took parts in a seldom known, yet quite significant, plot to take down the most feared man amongst Hitler’s inner circle. Whilst the questions tormented the participants of this operation are of universal relevance and utmost importance, Ellis and his crew do not allow them to be dealt as mere intellectual subjects: as an exemplary cinematic art, Anthropoid impresses us as a deeply altering affective experience. In short, if you fail to appreciate this movie and allow it to shake you to the core, you may use this opportunity to question your humanity.

Anthropoid is named after its subject, the Operation Anthropoid, the incredibly audacious plot to assassinate the bloodiest figure from Nazi Germany, SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, who was third in command of the Third Reich. Heydrich has been considered by historians as the most fearsome figure in the Nazi Germany, and for good reasons. Every bloody crime committed by the Nazi had his distinct signature on it. He actively participated in the Night of Long Knives and organised Kristallnacht, the event which marked the beginning of the Holocaust. He was the host of Wannsee Conference wherein he and Adolf Eichmann put forward the detailed policies for one of the most staggering atrocities ever committed: they called it the Final Solution. He was not merely the architect of the most notorious genocide in history; he was also the chief enforcer. He formed the branch of the SS called Einsatzgruppen, who systematically hunted down the Jews and the dissidents in the occupied territories and sent them to the Death Camps.

Heydrich was also the architect and the enforcer of the police state that injected paralysing fear amongst the populace who were placed under his unforgiving scrutiny. Heydrich’s rise was swift as he set in motion a monstrous system which crushed the will to dissent. He transformed the SD into a deadly intelligence agency which blackmailed all possible oppositions into submission or made them ‘disappear’; he took over the Gestapo and maximised their power by issuing the Night-and-Fog decree, which legalised the arbitrary detention and extra-judicial killing by the forces under his command. Heydrich’s ’contributions’ to Hitler’s Germany was multifaceted. He was a major of Luftwaffe and flew nearly 100 combat missions. As the head of the German law enforcement, he also became the president of the ICPC (International Criminal Police Commission), the organisation which is now known as Interpol. He also contributed to the success of infamous 1936 Berlin Olympic by his effective handling of the public relations: he did everything to make the Nazi Germany appear a ‘modern civilised society’ by strictly concealing its anti-Semitism and grossly played down its criminal nature. It is clear that Heydrich was the most trusted fixer for Hitler’s regime. He was called ‘Himmler’s Brain’ and feared by the Nazis themselves. Hitler called him a ‘man with an iron heart’. And the Czechs called him: The Butcher of Prague. He was sent to Prague by Hitler in order to counter anti-Nazi activities in Czechoslovakia as Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia (The Nazi segregated Slovakia to establish a puppet state). To this end, he ruthlessly terrorised the population from the day one. He executed 142 people in the first five days of his rule. According to his own estimate, he arrested 5,000 people by February 1942 and as many as 500 were executed; the rest was sent to Maunthausen-Gussen concentration camp from where only 4% of the Czechs emerged alive. The Gestapo successfully infiltrated the Czech resistance and effectively paralysed what was left of them. Denied all communications from the rest of the world, it was unlikely that the resistance would have a prospect of making a major contribution in the fight against the oppressive regime. By the time of the operation, Heydrich had effectively destroyed the Czech resistance. Sadly, when the seven operatives dissent to the occupied Czechoslovakia, there were only a handful of them left to ‘greet’ them.

A historic backdrop as such might tempt a director to release a conventional war-movie of Hollywood variety wherein the use of lethal force is glorified with the Biblical cliché of ‘good versus evil’ which ensures the eventual victory for the hero and the comprehensive defeat of the antagonist, thereby reliably providing the false comfort of a ‘happy ending’. ‘Taking on the Nazi’ is a popular sub-genre and the likes of Tarantino have gone unthinkably low as to release ‘entertainment films’ on this very subject: they relish every opportunity to represent graphic violence as an essence of entertainment and exploit the real historic events as an excuse to justify the public exhibition of their fetish. If the box office of these movies are of any indication, these directors have shamelessly fed on and fuelled the needs of the public. Ellis rejects such a popular scheme by intensely focusing on the moral dilemmas experienced by the two main operatives, Josef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan), and yet also properly honouring every members of the Czech resistance in Prague including: Adolf Opálka (Harry Lloyd), the leader of the parachutists; Josef Valcik (Václav Neužil), the parachutist in charge of the communication between Prague and London; Mrs Moravec (Alena Mihulová) who sheltered Jozef and Jan; Ata Moravec (Bill Milner), the violinist son who volunteered as the go-between to assist the operation; ‘Uncle’ Jan Zelenka-Hajský (Toby Jones), the leader of the Czech resistance in Prague; Ladislav Vanék (Marcin Dorociński), Hajský’s ambivalent second in command; Marie Kovámiková (Charlotte Le Bon), the member of resistance and the girlfriend of Jan; and Lenka Fafková (quietly brilliant Anna Geislerová), a resistance member who provides the affective anchor to the story. Ellis even gives a proper presence to Karel Čurda (Jiří Šimek), an informer for the Gestapo who failed to sabotage the plot. Whilst we may not see any complications about taking down the chief architect and the enforcer of the reign of fear and death (briefly yet superbly enacted by Detlef Bothe, a veteran German actor, director and producer), such a crude perspective is only available as the ‘benefit’ of hindsight. Ellis makes us live through the terrible uncertainty and the resulting ambiguity which each character was forced to experience in the face of absurd cruelty. For someone who was placed in the actual situation, there was nothing clear about the choices he/she had to make. Even the most driven character, Josef (performed by ever unforgettable Cillian Murphy), suffered crippling doubt and emotional turmoil on his role in the plot. Worse still, none of them was given time to make peace with her/his respective decision, for when and how they meet their end was not in their own hands.

From the onset of the story, we are forced to experience the cruel uncertainty. The first Czechs whom Josef and Jan made contact turned out to be Gestapo informers: they were more than willing to sell their compatriots off in exchange of some reward with full knowledge of what their actions entailed: the two fellow Czechoslovakians would be tortured until they would spill out everything they knew; then they would be murdered and disposed. Whilst many of us have been enjoying civic liberty as a given, Anthropoid makes us feel what it was like to live with the omnipresent doubt and fear. Czechoslovakians were made to feel that no one, absolutely no one, could be trusted: everyone looked over their shoulder and tried not to stare or make an eye-contact with anyone. Josef and Jan therefore had to clutch onto their pistols, ready to discharge them at all times. And the same ‘readiness’ to kill applied for their Czech counterpart: the first ‘meeting’ between two parachutists and the members of Czech resistance began with an armed escort followed by an interrogation and ended in a heated confrontation which was only restrained by a gun point. When Josef informed of the objective of their mission, Vanék, the second in command of the resistance, flew into a rage, asking: Are you completely mad? His concerns were well-justified. Any attempt to Heydrich’s life would result in the bloody reprisal which could ‘wipe out Czechoslovakia off the map’. He went on to remind everyone: If the Czech government in London intended to impress the Allies with this mission, the point was completely moot, for it was the British and the French who betrayed their defence agreement and fed their country to the Nazi in the first place. Vanék had another valid point: What are the benefit of assassinating Heydrich provided it is going to be successful against all odds? Why not assassinating Hitler in Berlin instead? Is it not more effective in regard to the effort to defeat the Nazi Germany? Whilst the resistance decided to throw their support for the Operation Anthropoid in the end by shifting their focus from strategic or humanitarian questions to an ethical question which demanded siding against the evil at all cost, the concerns raised by Vanék had not lost their deadly weight on the participants. In fact, as the plot progressed, the pains of bearing these questions and living through the resulting ambiguity only increased.

The ambiguity they suffered is relevant to all of us who must face one decision or another. At the heart of this ambiguity there is a debilitating complexity arising from our constitutive inability to make a decision with sound confidence due to our epistemic limitations. By nature, we are not in a position to understand how the future unfolds and what effects our actions in the present moment might have in this regard. Thus, at least theoretically, every decision we make could be life-altering despite the appearance of triviality. We go through a day on auto-pilot by relying on rules and systems that have become a reflex. Yet, for the most part, we have no idea what each action we perform entails to ourselves, to the people around us and the world at large. We have no precise grasp of the practical implications of our actions, thus we have no clear idea of how they affect ourselves, the people around us and the world at large. Since most of our actions are automated, the majority of our actions are unconsciously made despite their implications. Yet these implications are not merely practical; because every practical implication of our action affects someone, however trivially, every action must be judged ethically due to the undeniable fact that it affect others whether we recognise it or not. Still, most actions are performed automatically according to the reflex formed by rules and norms. Often these habits can be properly put to test by scientific research and dispel any misconceptions from which we may suffer. Yet, just as often, such a habit becomes so entrenched in our Geist that no one is interested in summoning the will to take corrective measures. We suppress any disturbance to our conscience by attempting to defend ourselves by the notion of cultural identity for which we sometimes profess to die. Yet, it must be clear that such an ‘argument’ is absurdly false, for the ethical evaluation of our actions has nothing to do with the identity of the actors. To make matters worse, our cognitive limitation enforces our epistemic fallibility: we are evolved to focus solely on immediate and short-term problems, not on remote and long-term ones. Then it is not surprising that our epistemic limitation has severe implications upon the evaluation of our actions. Given the insufficient level of our conscientiousness to recognise the complexities involved in evaluating the meaning of our actions, it is a categorical imperative for us to put ourselves through an agonising philosophical exercise to awaken ourselves from our dogmatic slumber and begin to appreciate the moral ambiguity arising from the insurmountable uncertainty regarding the correctness of our decisions. In order to fully experience how excruciating such an ethical dilemma could be, we need to imagine ourselves in place of real people who were forced to live through extraordinary circumstances. Yet, since we cannot truthfully understand someone else’s experience, the only way to approach it is through our empathy accompanied by sufficiently robust intellect. This is precisely the reason why we need to appreciate aesthetic means: if the prospective audience demonstrates sufficient cognitive, intellectual and aesthetic development, then an exceptional work of art such as Anthropoid is the best way for us to think through and feel what it is like to suffer the crushing pain of the moral ambiguity forced upon the characters whose tragic circumstances must break down any illusions we may have of our ‘lofty’ moral standing.

The ambiguity regarding the meaning of the operation was most poignantly dramatised in the relationships between two pairs of love-interests: Jan and Marie on one hand, and Josef and Lenka on the other. The conversations amongst the two respective couples sharply represent the shifting emphasis and their wavering commitment to the plot. It all began in an emotionally charged scene wherein Lenka realised for the first time what the objective of the operation was: there was only one person who travel with an armed escort in Prague and his name is Reinhard Heydrich. After the initial shock, two women represented completely different reactions. Whilst Marie slumped in disbelief and crushed with fear of the certain prospect of the bloody Nazi reprisal, Lenka was outraged from the fact that she and Marie were treated as mere accessories to the high-stake operation. This fictional scene serves at once as the brutally perfect representation of the moral dilemma, a perfect picture which is complete in and of itself, yet it is also the seed from which the intricate, complex and conflicting concerns grow. Whilst Jan and Marie were unsure of the merit of the operation despite their commitment, Josef and Lenka were introduced as more resolute of the pairs. Following the confrontation, Josef apologised Lenka for their disrespect toward their now proper conspirators, and Lenka tersely replies: she considered Heydrich a worthy target. Given the atrocities the Germans unleashed upon the Czechs, Josef argued previously, Heydrich was human in name only and forfeited the right for life for himself, and Lenka agreed. Yet, their steely commitment to the cause were seriously tested on separate occasions. On the day of the action, Lenka briefly caught Josef to express her love and fear for his life. As for Josef, upon learning Lenka’s death as the result of her connection to the ‘failed’ operation, he lost his control and needed to be restrained by Jan. Like Jan, he later questioned the meaning of the tremendous sacrifice of civilian lives for this operation. He even appeared to agree with Jan’s suggestion: they were going to identify themselves as the plotters and publicly commit suicide to prevent further loss of life. In the end, both refused to surrender to the Nazi and took one last stand together. Still, the fact remains: Josef was forced to accept a very different outlook. Having become fully aware of the human cost of the operation, his outlook had changed dramatically after the action. Judging by his apparent embracement for the opportunity to end his life by his own hand, Josef appeared to admit: he could no longer live with the experience he had with the operation.

On the other hand, Marie urged Jan to call off the operation. Heydrich had murdered thousands by that point in time, and any attempt for his life would result in the massive loss of civilian lives. The victims would be punished for the plot to which they could not give their consent. How could anyone justify such a sacrifice? And what would be the possible benefit of the operation? Since the system of fear designed and implemented by Heydrich was fully functional at that point, killing one person, even of Heydrich’s calibre, would not cause any disruption to the function of the police state. Also, from their perspective, the strategic value was doubtful even if they managed to stop Heydrich. The Nazi appeared invincible and all-conquering from their limited perspective (the Czech resistance lost all communication to the world until the parachutists arrived), and the chance of the Allie’s honouring the interest of Czechs were minimum. One of the two major empires, France, was swiftly overrun and Britain was not in the position to reverse the tide on her own. If the British ‘support’ for the Finns during the Winter War offered any reliable indication, their commitment to the ‘allies’ would be limited to the supply of notoriously unreliable British firearms, which they again supplied for the operation yet Josef’s STEN submachine gun failed to discharge at the most critical moment of the plot. And, from Prague, there was no way of knowing whether the Soviet offensive would last long enough to deal a major blow to the Nazi’s dominance in Europe. The fact is: nobody, not even the high functionalities of the major powers, had no inkling of how the war would end. Given the certainty of the massive loss of innocent lives, Marie was right to ask the point of the operation: Killing Heydrich and then what? How many more will be killed and when will the Nazi atrocities stop? To which Jan replies with utmost respect and candidness: None of this makes any sense to him yet he intends to carry out the order to honour his oath. To which Marie responds in desperation: Just tell me that we are doing the right thing. On one hand Lenka was correct to think: Heydrich must be stopped. ‘Uncle’ Jan Zelenka-Hajský was also correct in his decision to side against the evil and make an explicit statement on behalf of Czechoslovakians. Yet the meaning of their sacrifice could not be precisely known to them, for the evaluation of their actions were inseparable from the fundamentally uncertain elements such as the strategic merit of the operation and its historic verdict. If they thought that their sacrifice would not make any difference in the larger scheme of the war, then it would be nearly impossible to justify what must be considered a suicide mission. Whilst it is easy for us to see just how significant their actions were, such a clarity was impossible to attain for them even when their foe represented the absolute evil.

Whilst some critics have been impressed by the apparent ‘lack of heroism’ in Anthropoid, it is clear that such a description fails to do justice to the history or the movie: the moral struggle of these characters and their wavering commitment to the plot made their story humane, therefore heroic in a proper sense of the word. In this light, it is perhaps more accurate to say: Anthropoid is a movie which refuses to glorify the use of lethal force in any shape or form by respectfully demonstrating these characters’ vulnerability in a situation wherein such a use of force was a given. This is where Ellis, as the director and the co-writer of the script, demonstrated a rare sensibility which enabled him and his cast to fully appreciate and respect the debilitating ambiguity which relentlessly tortured our protagonists to the end. In this respect, Ellis’ choice to develop the relationships between these men and their significant others was critical. By giving voices to these two women, who were barely mentioned in the past, Ellis and his cast were able to dramatise the excruciating pains of being unable to know what their actions would entail in the end. In addition to the general epistemic uncertainty, they had to contend with the prospect of untimely deaths: they knew that they would not live to see the judgment of history upon their decisions to take part of the assassination plot. Ellis’ development of these four characters allowed him to pose difficult questions with which the resistance members were forced to grapple. They feared for the lives of others and their own. They were constantly torn between the need to confront the evil and the concerns over the bloody consequences. Our protagonists understood this problem beforehand: as Kant would have argued, it was not only impossible but wrong to justify any loss of life as acceptable sacrifices. As Josef noted, what made them carry on despite the moral dilemma was their determination to side against Heydrich and his reign of paralysing fear. By killing Heydrich, they attempted to break this paralysis and control, if only for a brief moment. Yet without knowing the end result and the historic significance of their actions, it was impossible to make peace with what followed their actions. Indeed, they had to learn the full extent of the consequences of their actions in the following days of the ‘failed’ operation. For example, based on false informations from the Gestapo, the Nazi raided the small towns of Lidice and Ležáki. All men over the year of 16 were murdered on spot. All women were sent to Ravensbrück Death Camp. All but a handful of children who were chosen for the Germanisation program were sent to Chelmno Death Camp. Both towns were raised to the ground. According to an estimate, 1,300 Czechs were executed in the wake of Heydrich’s death. Whilst they understood the existential risk for themselves and their fellow Czechs beforehand, the commitment to an abstract concept such as patriotism or siding against evil could not prepare them for what followed their actions. In this respect, Anthropoid is a story of unlearning: each and every protagonist was brutally forced to unlearn abstract concepts that kept them in a comfort zone. Even for Josef, the most fanatically committed member for the cause, the world in his view had slowly lost the stark contrast of black and white: it then revealed itself in a fog of melancholia.

This unlearning points to another fact: there was, and still is, no way to ease the pain and the sufferings experienced by those who were brutally murdered, and by those who loved and cared about them. This is true even with the full recognition of their historic contributions. By respectfully acknowledging this painful fact and making it the central focus of the story, Anthropoid distinguishes itself from countless commercial movies about the WWII. The WWII is a particularly perilous subject: because of the given status of the Nazi as the representation of the evil, the storytellers tend to fall back on a crude and self-indulgent morality to the point where superhuman heroes and villains are glorified in the haze of choreographed gunfires and explosions. In such a story, the loss of life and the threat to life are mere plops to artificially heighten the tension in the audience. Please take a moment to note: people are made to die in order to entertain us. As a result, most audience expect an action-thriller of shallowest kind in a war movie despite the fact that all of us must know someone whose family and/or friends lived or died in these historic events. Such a habit of consumption is a blatant disregard for the sacrifices made by the people who were forced to live through and die by the horror unleashed upon them. This is where Anthropoid has distinguished itself: by making the audience live through the infernal dilemma of committing to one decision or another in a fog of uncertainty, it has forcefully brought home the sheer horror of their experience. As Lenka stated with her signature terseness, a war is not ‘romantic’ in this movie, because it isn’t. Remarkably Anthropoid has done justice to the participants of the real event in other non-trivial ways. This is down to Ellis’ incredible commitment to the story: he spent 12 years to prepare for the development and the production of the movie and his respect to the protagonists shone through in every directorial decision he made. This is by far the only internationally produced film on this subject which faithfully told the story from the Czech perspective. Ellis also chose to shoot the entire film in Prague, thereby increasing Czech involvement: many of the crews and the personnels were the Czechs who were deeply affected by this event. And, led by brilliant Anna Geislerová who delivered some of the most moving moments, the involvement of Czech actors for the key roles proved vital: their commitment to the roles and the respect for the characters heightened the stake in immeasurable ways. And there is a long shadow of history cast by the city of Prague. Whilst it is still impossible to make sense of the fact that one of the most infamous atrocities committed by the Nazi took place in such a beautiful place, it is horrifying still to remember that the subject of this movie is only one of many sufferings endured by the city. And the wary figures who overlook the changing street is still seeking the audience. They silently ask: Why must we repeat the history? When will it stop?

In order to hear these whispers, first we must stop deafening ourselves by the choreographed gunfires and explosions that glorify the use of lethal force. Only then, we will have a chance to realise that we cannot answer any of these questions. It is the only proper outcome for they are not meant to be answered; they are meant to be lived through.