ANTHROPOID is based on the extraordinary true story of "Operation Anthropoid," the code name for the Czechoslovakian operatives' mission to assassinate SS officer Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich, the main architect behind the Final Solution, was the Reich's third in command behind Hitler and Himmler and the leader of Nazi forces in Czechoslovakia. The film follows two soldiers from the Czechoslovakian army-in-exile, Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan), who are parachuted into their occupied homeland in December 1941. With limited intelligence and little equipment in a city under lockdown, they must find a way to assassinate Heydrich, an operation that would change the face of Europe forever.
In a day where Hollywood looks for sure financial success via endless strings of remakes, needless reboots and braindead franchises, it's great to get a historical drama that tells an amazing, worth-learning-about true story. There are so many barely-known noteworthy stories within this world's history that it's refreshing to see a studio hire a strong new filmmaker and a solid cast to bring one to light. Set in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II, 'Anthropoid' tells the story of Allied-backed rebels tasked with the impossible: assassinating Adolf Hitler's heavily-guarded third-in-command leader. Like 'Bridge of Spies,' 'Anthropoid' tells a fully engaging tale of defiance and espionage.
In September 1938, Hitler threatened the surrounding Allied nations that if they didn't willingly hand over Czechoslovakia, that he would declare war on all of them. They complied, but one year later, when Hitler's army unexpectedly invaded Poland, Allied forces in turn declared war on him. That's when World War II officially started. Before long, the Czech people had had enough of the Nazi occupation. Production from Czech factories went down considerably, so Hilter sent his third-in-command, Reinhard Heydrich, to make an example of the rebels and get factory output back to acceptable levels. Upon arrival, he immediately ordered his forces on a killing spree. The body count was so high that he quickly earned the nickname "The Butcher of Prague."
Although Czechoslovakia wasn't part of the Allied pact, Allied forces erred on the side of humanity and did what they collectively could to help the hurting nation. 'Anthropoid' kicks off with two Czech rebels (Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan) parachuting into the wooded mountains outside Prague. Following training in London, they were sent on a very specific mission: Operation Anthropoid. The purpose was to assassinate the highly-guarded Butcher of Prague by any means necessary.
Thanks to two aspects of the film, upon watching it, 'Anthropoid' immediately caught my attention. First, a lot of historical dramas have known outcomes, placing the mantle of keeping an audience interested on the writing of the story. Having not heard of Heydrich or the rebel plan to take him out, I was immediately excited to see where this one went. Second, the opening of the film does something that immediately shows you the danger and high stakes in this game. It's made very obvious that no one is safe because of everpresent and unpredictable Nazi army. This out-of-the-gate sense is critical in the grand scheme of the film's structure.
'Anthropoid' plays out like a two-part slow-burner. The first half establishes the terrifying social climate, the characters and their assassination plans. The tension slowly builds over this period up to the anxiety-enducing first-half climax. I'll refrain from spoiling the outcome of their attempt, but either way, it results in a Nazi shut-down of Prague. The second rising part of the film takes place while the Nazi manhunt to find the surviving rebels responsible begins. With so much heat in Prague, these characters know that they must escape the city before more Nazi forces arrive to assist in the manhunt. Tensions build once again as these characters hide out and plan their escape. Just as the first half did, the second half results in unnerving suspense.
'Anthropoid' isn't an action-packed war film, but it's just as impactful and tense as one. The little-known story that it tells is worthy of being in history books. The film telling of the story is extremely well-written and superbly executed. The period production value is top-notch, especially for a small picture shot with a production budget of just $9 million. The central characters could have been fleshed out more, but Murphy, Dornan and their supporting cast of foreign actors do an excellent job of bringing them life and making you care for their outcomes.
For reasons unknown, Universal gave 'Anthropoid' a quiet theatrical release with hardly any marketing. After seeing it, it's surprising that it wasn't given a stronger release and a whole lot more backing. There's absolutely no reason why it should be overlooked. If you're craving an interesting and well-made film to check out, look no further.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal has given 'Anthropoid' a combo pack release that places a BD-50, a DVD and a redemption code for Ultraviolet and iTunes digital copies in a two-disc blue Elite keepcase that slides vertically into an embossed cardboard slipcase. When you pop the disc into your player, following an unskippable Universal reel, "fresh trailers from the internet" will be streamed. If you pass over them, you'll be taken directly to the static, score-set main menu.
I love it when filmmakers take a retro approach to filmmaking just to achieve a desired quality – like how Quentin Tarantino used decades-old lenses just for the extra wide aspect ratio of 'The Hateful Eight.' (I know, I know. There are many who dislike his choice for Panavision considering two-thirds of the film is set in an enclosed space – but just go with it for the sake of this example.) Co-writer/director/producer/cinematographer Sean Ellis did something similar for 'Anthropoid.' He wanted his passion project to have the gritty stylized look and feel of an old WWII film. In his mind, the best way to do that was to take a couple steps back. In this day and age, you'd think the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode of this micro-budget film derived from a digital shoot; au contraire, Ellis went back farther than 35 mm and opted for Super16 film stock. Although the conscious decision sacrificed the extreme details that we've become accustomed to, in return, he produced a film with a rich feel to it that's barely off from that of 'Saving Private Ryan.'
In addition to cutting out fine textures and rigid lines, the Super16 footage slightly dulls down the colors – which is perfect considering the desired desaturated palette. Set in bleak times, the lacking presence of colors works very well. With lots of grays, whites, limited earthy tones and reoccuring sepia hues, the Super16 has no negative impact on the colorization. Instead, they partner well.
The film grain is interesting. It doesn't look quite like 35 mm grain, but comparably in the middle ground between that and digital noise. It's a quality that may catch your attention over the first few minutes following the parachute landing into Czechoslovakia, but will become natural so quickly that you won't even notice it.
Because there's not much fine texture to the film, we don't get banding or aliasing. Once scene in the woods features minor traces of noise, but that's it. Despite the film stock, the imagery is absolutely clean and 100% void of scratches, specks or other physical flaws. The clarity is just as strong as anything you'd find in digitally-shot films.
'Anthropoid' comes with a great 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track with minor flaws that are made up for with several reference quality, effects-heavy scenes. Let's start with my one beef.
For the most part, the dialog mixing of 'Anthropoid' is good, but on a few occassions, it's difficult to hear and understand. There are several factors to this, the first being the Czech and German accents. Even though they put on thick accents (it's obvious that they were coached very well for their roles), everything said by the Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan is completely audible. Unfortunately, for some of their non-English-speaking co-stars, that's not the case. Their dialog can come across as mumbly and bumbly. Two scenes in specific frustrated me, the second of which features a French-speaking actress telling a story in a Czech accent while sobbing. Imagine how difficult that is to understand. Luckily, after a few unintelligible lines, the story she's telling is portrayed visually on-screen, so we get the jist; however, I'm still clueless as to what was said in the other scene. For native English-speakers, you shouldn't have to turn on subtitles to understand an English-speaking film.
The scoring of 'Anthopoid' is fairly simple. More often than not, it consists of unsettling tones and ominous sounds. When used, they certainly fill the space well, giving off a nice full vibe. While it doesn't have anything to do with the quality of the sound, the lack of scoring – meaning silence – can be used just as effectively make scenes equally as unsettling.
By far, the best aspect of the track involves effect mixing. It kicks off with the opening scene and continues strong until the closing title cards pop up. Being shot on a very modest budget, the opening parachute scene isn't actually shown in the film. Instead, over black title cards, we hear the sounds of one of our two leads dropping into the forest. Before we've even seen a frame of the actual film shoot, we hear branches cracking, twigs snapping, as military issue boots and the rebel soldiers wearing them come crashing through the trees and onto the snow-covered ground. Effects uniquely pop around the room, creating a very awesome listening experience.
Just like the tension in the film, the sound only gets better as we get to the two climactic setpieces in the film. During the assassination attempt and again the long finale sequence, bomb and grenade blasts pack a punch, as do each of the countless rounds fired from hand guns and machine guns. It can be utter chaos. Popping off from all over the room, it only adds to the intensity. In addition, great other effects have been layered to add emotional impact. For example, an explosion goes off relatively close to a mother pushing a stroller. Not even a second after the blast, the sound of screaming baby emits from the right side along with the dozens of other layered effects dynamically spread throughout the room. Effects image seamlessly across the channels. These heavy scenes are made even more chilling through great audio.
There are countless true stories that are worthy of being told cinematically. World War II is chock full of them. The rebel- and assassination-based story of 'Anthropoid' is one of those that, surprisingly, has yet to be told on the big screen. Now knowing all that it entails, I'm shocked that this story isn't widely known nor taught. Functioning as a two-act slow-burner, each half builds in suspense to wildly intense climaxes. The actors deliver solid performances that cause you to become emotionally invested, making the rising action all that more enthralling. With great stylistic video quality and dynamic audio, the combination of story, visuals and sound is superb. Although it would have been nice to get more special features, the two that are included are excellent. Considering all thing, this a Blu-ray that's very much worth checking out.