Anthropoid (2016)

True-to-life account of the two heroes behind a stunning assassination in the heart of Nazi-occupied Bohemia is brilliantly staged but marred by peculiar editing decisions and mishmash of accents.

anthropoidUK/Czech Republic

Sean Ellis

Sean Ellis

Anthony Frewin
Director of Photography:
Sean Ellis

Running time: 120 minutes

There are few people as unequivocally heroic yet as little known outside their home country as Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík. Czechoslovak soldiers born during the First World War, they would grow to see their proud nation in the heart of Europe betrayed by the Allied forces and handed over to Nazi Germany by the time they reached their mid-20s. Their supreme act of bravery – assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s cold-blooded emissary to the occupied territory of Bohemia and Moravia – ultimately did little to change the tide against the Nazis, but the stand they took against the Third Reich is one of the most admirable acts of the 20th century.

UK director Sean Ellis spent many years developing the screenplay for Anthropoid (the title refers to the codename of the two soldiers’ top-secret mission), and the film’s plot closely resembles the events as they occurred at the end of 1941 and the first half of 1942. However, accuracy and entertainment are by no means the same thing, and it is with this latter point that the director fails to make an adequate impression.

Anthropoid opens late on a cold December night when the two men, who had received their orders from the Czech government-in-exile in the United Kingdom, are dropped 30 kilometres from Prague. Anthropoid screenplay is boldly structured to eschew flashbacks and to limit itself to the Czech territory for exactly as long as the two men’s lifespan.

Very little happens over the course of the first hour, however. Although there is a sense of foreboding regarding the execution of the plan, Ellis does a poor job of showing us life under occupation. Czechs appear to go about their business, even as Germans in uniform show up at their cafés and bars, but there is no real feeling for the Czechs and their (presumably) terrified frame of mind. Uncle Hajský (Toby Jones, whose presence in the film is very steadying) expresses anger about the 1938 Munch Agreement, but that is as much as we get. The film also makes very little effort to show us the camaraderie between the two men who spend six months in very close proximity, most of the time hiding the real purpose of their presence in the Prague to everyone around them.

Unfortunately, because of the actors involved and a number of peculiar decisions made during the editing process, the final product is wildly uneven.

The actors are Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy as the Czech Kubiš and the Slovak Gabčík, respectively, and it was certainly a clever bit of casting, with Dornan being a native of Northern Ireland while Murphy hails from the Republic of Ireland. This cleverness, however, cannot make up for Dornan’s unshakable Irish lilt that hits us every time he opens his mouth, which has the effect of leaving the viewer wholly alienated from the story’s time and place.

Among the rest of the cast, the inconsistency in pronunciation is another nuisance. From a financial point of view, it is understandable that the film was made in English. But while the accents are already imperfect, the issue is compounded by the fact that some Czech cast members choose to pronounce uniquely Czech letters (such as the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce “ř”) in their native tongue, while other players stick to the closest English equivalent.

The editing process is equally flawed, and perhaps the most egregious examples are the otherwise stunning set pieces that serve as pivotal moments in the narrative: the assassination of Heydrich, which takes place in public in broad daylight, and a six-hour shootout inside the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral.

Both of these events, while meticulously staged and deserving of admiration because of how they unfold, have their sound turned off at the most crucial moments. At times, they are only accompanied by the soft sounds of an extradiegetic piano, which imbues them with a cloak of artistry when they require a more gritty sense of immediacy.

The film’s opening minutes are similarly inelegant. After a few introductory bits of text that are misleading at best and historically inaccurate at worst (Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in October 1938 and its full-scale invasion of Czechoslovakia less than six months later are seemingly lumped together), we get a handful of shots in close, slapdash succession that communicate precious little but point to a director more interested in telling his story through the editing suite than with the camera.

Visually, there is nothing particularly memorable about Anthropoid, at least not in a good way, as the film is tinged in a golden hue that is completely unnecessary, and Prague is always covered in a thick layer of fog, with only a church spire, a few rooftops and Prague Castle visible, most likely in order to save money.

And yet, despite all these problems, Ellis does draw on some genuinely moving material in subtle and very effective ways. Perhaps the most powerful moment in the entire film comes very early on when the two parachutists are questioned by the Prague Resistance: Kubiš’s response to a question about his hometown in Moravia shimmers with nostalgia and patriotism conveyed through words alone that conjure up a single image. In that moment, we understand Kubiš’s firm connection to his country and why he has come back to defend it against the ongoing Nazi aggression. Quite simply, it is extraordinary.

Dornan’s accent does not do him any favours, and in general he appears to be absent from the narrative, except for the numerous close-ups on his shivering hands (to make the point, in no uncertain terms, that he is also just a man and does not have nerves of steel). By contrast, Murphy excels as Gabčík, and so does Anna Geislerová, who plays his romantic interest, Lenka, a young woman who has already seen more than her share of violence and experienced more pain during the war than we could imagine.

It would have required a real genius to turn this story of bravery and success-despite-all-odds into anything but riveting, not unlike the entertaining hatchet job that Wolfgang Petersen did with Troy. The lead-up to the action-packed final act is rather dull and dreary, although Ellis has to be commended for minimising the visibility of swastikas – usually a hallmark of these kinds of films, but it is particularly disheartening that the two major set pieces fall short of perfection because of the sound choices. In addition, the climax contains a laughable hallucination that has no place in the film.

This is a story that everyone should be aware of, and this is the most poignant portrayal of the story to date, but the film itself would have benefited from a greater focus on realistic sound, particularly with regard to the accents of the cast.

Family Film (2015)

A family is torn apart, a dog fends for itself, and the director proves his filmmaking chops with an unexpectedly affecting work of dramatic fiction.

family-filmCzech Republic/Slovenia

Olmo Omerzu 

Olmo Omerzu

Nebojša Pop-Tasić
Director of Photography:
Lukáš Milota

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Rodinný film

Following up on his widely hailed début, A Night Too Young (Příliš mladá noc), Slovenian-born FAMU graduate Olmo Omerzu’s sophomore feature – shot once again in his second language – is yet further proof of the young director’s (he turned 30 during production) talent for storytelling: He manages to tackle a theme as serious as the crumbling family unit with a mixture of short, powerful revelations in a snow-swept Prague and lyrical, wordless snippets on a tropical island in the eastern Indian Ocean.

In a deceptively simple but well-chosen opening scene, which takes place inside the family sedan of Igor Kubín, his son and daughter are watching a nature documentary on the television embedded on the back of his headrest. Igor’s wife, Irena, asks him whether he took their sheepdog, a Border Collie named Otto, to get vaccinated. Igor sheepishly admits he forgot. In the meantime on the documentary, a frog unceremoniously meets its end.

Igor and Irena leave for a yachting expedition around Christmas Island and expect everything back home to go well as they will keep in touch with their teenage son, Erik, and his elder sister, Anna, via Skype. But when the cat’s away, the mice will play, and they do so no sooner than on the way back from dropping their parents off at the airport, when they pick up Anna’s friend Kristýna.

Omerzu is cautious to show too much too quickly, and he uses small but striking hints that things are headed south, for example by ending many a scene on a slightly awkward facial expression that firmly indicates the situations are not as innocent as they seem at first. The day after his parents leave, Erik arrives back home to find the doors to the building’s elevator closing shut, and we briefly spot Kristýna, stark-naked, inside.

She later explains to him that she plays this game because she is bored, and before long she turns her sights and her wiles on the naïve Erik, whom his father had playfully advised to enjoy himself in moderation. The calculating Kristýna moves in with Anna and Erik, and even when the children’s uncle Martin eventually turns up, she stays put, sometimes snuggling up next to Erik in bed, at other times stroking his hand or licking his ear.

All the while, there are glimpses of sun-kissed beaches, palm trees and turquoise waters half a world away, where Igor and Irena are blissfully ignoring any possibility their children would get into trouble. It is only when Anna receives an unexpected phone call about her brother’s fortnight-long absence from school that she is compelled to convene a Skype intervention between her, her parents and a teacher from school. Irena wants to go home at once, but Igor insists there is nothing they can do but bide their time.

At first, it is challenging to understand what Omerzu is getting at, or why he wants to tell us this story. But everything changes in the final third, which in formal terms is also by far his most ambitious act, as all the pieces suddenly come together in a stunning contrast of wrenching heartache and serene tranquillity, as revelations about the family structure in Prague play off against scenes of perseverance in a tropical wilderness, with Otto stranded on a deserted island.

Although there is little development in his character, the story of Otto the dog unexpectedly turns out to be one of the most impressive additions to the screenplay. His arrival on the island is a gorgeous example of Omerzu’s talents, as the camera follows the dog slowly swimming ashore, time and time again briefly disappearing from view behind the crest of the wave before re-emerging, snout in the air. The scene will be sure to leave many a viewer breathless, thanks to the visual dynamics we are made witness to.

Other scenes with or around Otto are equally mesmerising, from a palm tree hit by lightning to crabs scurrying surreptitiously behind the dog while it takes shelter from the rain. The film’s final scene is another astonishing triumph, and Omerzu’s decision to let it play out with barely a word of dialogue demonstrates his eye for cinematic intensity.

Family Film is a rich, satisfying experience of a minimalist story line that includes a handful of unforeseen developments, all presented with a firm hand and no desire to shock. The director is in complete control of his material, and while a few characters lack depth or motivation, the last act of the film is a wonderful display of a range of feelings, from passive aggression to love and forgiveness.

Viewed at the 2015 San Sebastián International Film Festival