Anthropoid‘s star-studded cast includes Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey, The Fall) and Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders, 28 Days Later). We spoke to the film’s director, Sean Ellis, about the true events that inspired the film, and the responsibilities of transforming collective memory into a cinematic experience…
Please note: This interview contains spoilers
Q: Where did you first come across the story of Operation Anthropoid and what grabbed you about it?
A: Watching a documentary back in 2001. I was completely fascinated because it was an extremely thrilling story that I’d never heard before, which played out exactly like a movie. I couldn’t believe it had actually happened. So I did a lot of research and came to the conclusion that it would make a really interesting feature film.
Cillian Murphy as Jozef Gabčík. (Icon Film Distribution)
Q: The film follows the two men charged with assassinating Heydrich, Moravian Jan Kubiš (played by Jamie Dornan) and Slovakian Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) – what can you tell us about them?
A: What we know about the men from history is quite small – all we really have to go on from the historical record are one-line descriptions of their personalities.
But we do know that Jozef Gabčík was a passionate patriot who passed all his training. He was highly driven and keen to prove that he could undertake this mission successfully.
Jan Kubiš, on the other hand, was softer, shyer and more jokey. He was actually swapped into the mission at the last moment, after the original man chosen was injured. During training, we know that Kubiš didn’t do very well in grenade throwing practice, which is ironic considering he threw the bomb that killed Heydrich in the end. As we see in the film, at the crucial moment, Kubiš didn’t actually throw the grenade correctly – it didn’t land in Heydrich’s car as planned, but hit the side.
Q: As you mentioned, the story is inherently gripping and cinematic – why do you think so many people in the UK don’t know anything about it?
A: When the war was over, Czechoslovakia was handed over to communist Russia. Anybody that had been connected with the Allied forces during the war was seen as a potential spy by the Communist Party. They risked execution or the Russian Gulag [the government agency that administered the main Soviet forced labour camp systems during the Stalin era, from the 1930s until the 1950s]. So nobody admitted they were a part of Operation Anthropoid [which had been planned in London]. Everybody just stopped talking about it, officially at least. That could explain why the operation isn’t very well known outside of the Czech Republic.
But the story was handed down through Czech families. It was something they were still immensely proud of, even if they weren’t going public with it.
Jamie Dornan as Jan Kubiš, who was swapped into Operation Anthropoid at the last moment. (Icon Film Distribution)
Q: How did you go about uncovering what happened on the mission?
A: After Heydrich’s assassination, the Gestapo launched one of the largest manhunts in history to catch the culprits. They were planning to open a museum to celebrate the search efforts and prove to the world how good they had been at hunting the men down. The ironic thing is that if it wasn’t for the assassins’ associate giving them up, the Gestapo would probably never have found them at all.
This museum was going to include a huge wealth of material, from the clothing that the assassins were wearing, right down to the methods the Gestapo had used to find them. So the Nazis strictly catalogued everything to do with the case. After the war, all this material – including Gestapo reports, eyewitness reports and autopsy reports ¬– was then archived at the Ministry of Defence and the Army Museum in Prague. When we were researching the film, we were able to access all of that incredible material.
A lot of stuff also came to light in the 1960s and 70s, which had been pretty much buried by the Nazis at the time. For instance, they claimed that no German soldier had been killed while capturing the assassins. But the resistance fighters held the church they were hidden in for six hours. They didn’t hold it using strong language, so the Nazi’s claims that no-one died just don’t ring true. It was propaganda to suggest that resistance was futile and had made no dent in the German war machine.
Years later, files emerged revealing that in reality around 30 German soldiers were killed and another 30 injured in the shoot-out.
Q: Can you tell us about the process of recreating occupied Prague?
A: I really wanted to transpose the audience back in time and give them a proper sense of what Prague was like in 1942. So we spent a lot of time going through photographs of the city taken in 1942. We would go to the locations and stand in exactly the same spot the photographs were taken from. From there we could figure out what lens the pictures had been taken on, put the same lens on our camera and shoot from the exact same angle. The CGI guys were then able to recreate the locations exactly as they looked in 1942.
We also recreated the church where the assassins were eventually caught to original plans. We weren’t able to film the siege in the real church, so we built it on a sound stage, using photographs from the time and even objects loaned from the real church. Lots of people visit that church and understand what it looks like, so it needed to be indistinguishable from the real one. It was very important to get that right.
The church crypt where the assassins were eventually caught, recreated to original plans. (Icon Film Distribution)
Q: It seems a lot of responsibility comes with telling a story like this – it’s an important part of Czech culture and the descendants of those involved are still alive today. How much did that influence you?
A: It did shape my approach to making the film, because it’s a big responsibility – you become an author of a historical event. Countries’ histories can be rewritten through modern retelling – you’re stepping into that arena and you have to tread very carefully.
This story is part of the Czech psyche. These men are the most well-known heroes that they have, so I knew we would have a lot of critiques coming from that country if we got it wrong. This meant we were very careful to be as historically correct as possible and stick to the events as we know them.
But the problem with historical events is that there are many different versions of those events. You can find yourself being a sort of historic detective. If there are three versions of the same story, as a filmmaker you have to ask – ‘which one of them feels correct? Which one feels like the right way to tell this story?’
For instance, we know that the 17-year-old Vlastimil ‘Ata’ Moravec [whose family sheltered Kubiš and Gabčík] was shown his dead mother’s head while the Nazis were torturing him for information. But there are three different accounts of how that went down. Some state it was in a fish tank, others say it was on a dinner platter or in a fire bucket. Presented with those three options, as a filmmaker you try to visualise a scene where her head gets wheeled in in a fish tank. Where would the interrogators get a fish tank? And why would they go to the trouble? The dinner platter seems equally unlikely, leaving the fire bucket as the most feasible option.
So you are presented with a number of options, and as you start working through those options, you end up with something that feels right as a retelling of the facts as we know them.
“We wanted to transpose the audience back in time and give them a sense of what Prague was like in 1942”, says Sean Ellis. (Icon Films Distribution)
Q: We learn early on in the film that if Operation Anthropoid is successful it will have devastating reprisals for the Czech population (as it indeed did). Did you ever feel the need to take a moral stance on that?
A: A lot of people still question whether the operation was worth it. The arguments are presented in the film and it’s a debate that continues today. It’s true that the assassination was going to wake a sleeping dragon and ultimately meant that a lot of people were going to get killed.
But we have to remember that the men sent on this mission didn’t have the advantage of hindsight. These men weren’t super soldiers, just normal people thrust into extraordinary situations. They went through with what they believed and they did not falter, which was very heroic. Yes, they were unlucky and yes, it ended terribly. But ultimately, no other high-ranking SS officer was ever assassinated. They got to number three.
Operation Anthropoid gave out a very clear message – that the Nazis could be held accountable for their actions and that the Czech people weren’t just being walked over by them. It was a political message that the Czech government in exile needed, to prove to the allies that their country was still fighting against the Nazi regime. With hindsight we know that yes, Operation Anthropoid was at great cost. But it was definitely one that was worth fighting for.
Anthropoid is released in UK cinemas today.