Director Sean Ellis talks about Anthropoid

New film about a wartime mission in Prague was 15 years in the making

The 51st Karlovy Vary International Film Festival kicked off with the world premiere of Anthropoid, another retelling of the mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, acting protector of Bohemia and Moravia and the third-highest Nazi official at the time.

Writer-director Sean Ellis said he had spent 15 years on the project. A deal to make the film was made at three years ago at Karlovy Vary, but executive producer David Ondříček said that at the time he wouldn't have best a single Czech crown that the project would actually get finished. “We began here, and we ended here,” he told the audience about the decision to have the film's world premiere at the festival.

Ellis was not only director and co-writer, but cinematographer. At a news conference, he said that his version is just one way of looking at the story.

The story begins with parachutists dropping some 30 miles from Prague in the winter. They are on an as yet undisclosed mission, but most of the audience, at least those in the Czech Republic, should know the broad outline.

The parachutists have instructions from the Czech government in exile to meet up with the Czech resistance in Prague but the names they have are out of date — they were captured months ago. The parachutists are on their own and have to establish new contacts. The film focuses on the two main parachutists, Jozef Gabčík (played by Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan), and the family that helps them.

No details of the preparations in London for the mission are shown, and the other six parachutists are minor characters. In Prague, they take months getting ready and finalizing the plans, but every day means more danger for everyone, and some in the local resistance consider the whole plan mad.

“It is more about the dramatic conflict within the resistance of the Czech people. I concentrated more on that,” Ellis said. “Yes, Heydrich is really like the arch-villain … but Heydrich is not really featured as a villain in the film,” he added. The character has very few scenes and is not a dramatic focus.

This approach, depicting the Czech resistance in a mixed light, is a bit controversial. But Ellis claims it is accurate.

“When you are doing a piece based on historical events you are a detective in some respect,” he said. You get different viewpoints from different people involved in the event. “At a certain point they are generally across the board conflicting. And there are many conflicting reports about the operation,” he added. As an author of a new version, he said he had to go with what he felt was the best representation for a drama, and not a documentary. “In some respects you say that event is kind of interesting, but it is a conflicting view. So you decide which avenue to take. … And you present your version of it,” he said.

He cited conflicting reports of specific Gestapo interrogation details, as an example. Of all the options he took the one that would work best on the screen, and that felt the most accurate.

Ellis also said that Czechs might take the story for granted, as it is part of their history. “Sometimes it takes an outsider to point to how special something is. … I live in London but I have never been to the British Museum, which is criminal really. But when you are in [something] sometimes you don't see it; you are sort of blinded by it,” he said. “And for me I was completely in love with this story, and was obsessed with it and just wanted to know really how those people felt during that time.”

As it is a drama, not a documentary, there is a fair amount of screen time given to a love story with two women helping the resistance tagging along. They are played by Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon and Czech actress Anna Geislerová. At the news conference, Geislerová said the finished film made her proud to be Czech.

Actor Toby Jones, who played a resistance member, also commented on the story. He said he was not aware of the historical incident before reading the script, but that films can serve to remind people of history. “If you are looking for themes for films you are often looking for very particular stories but you are also looking for an archetypal story that the world can relate to and empathize with. I think this is where the tension often is with people saying, is it historically true, because in a way in order to make a film you have to make it archetypal as well, and I think this is often where there is a conflict,” he said, adding that as he understood it, Anthropoid made few concessions and kept close to the true story. He also didn't know how moving the finished film would would be, as when he is acting he is concentrating on the individual moments and not on the broad picture.

Even though Heydrich was one of the architects of the Holocaust, the film does not focus on that except for a brief mention. “We liaisoned very carefully with historical advisers so we had quite a good understanding of what was happening to the Jewish people at that point, but it didn't really cross over into the story,” Ellis said, adding that a scene had been shot but in the end was not used because it was historically incorrect.

The city of Prague looks fantastic in the film, and many of the actual locations were used. Some though, no longer exist so substitutes were found. For technical reasons many of the street scenes with historical cars and trams on Wenceslas Square, Charles Bridge and near Prague Castle had to be shot in the early morning mist before tourists filled the streets. And the misty, shadowy shots are quite stunning.

One area of criticism was the accents, though. The film is in English with a mixed Czech and non-Czech cast speaking with pseudo-Slavic accents that are a bit inconsistent. Filming in Czech would have limited the international market too much, though, and letting some actors speak in Irish and British accents would have also made no sense. So it was likely the best decision but it does get distracting.

The story of the mission to assassinate Heydrich has been told before, most notably in 1975 with Operation: Daybreak, a British production based on the novel Seven Men as Daybreak and starring Timothy Bottoms and Joss Ackland. It was also shot in Prague and concentrates on suspense, adding many fictitious elements.

The first version was in 1943, called Hangmen Also Die!, and was directed by Fritz Lang from a story by Bertolt Brecht. The same year Douglas Sirk made Hitler's Madman. Lang, Brecht and Sirk were all exiles from Germany who moved to Hollywood.A Czech film about the events called Atentát was made in 1964. It won a Golden Prize at the Moscow Film Festival in 1965.

An English-language French production of the story called HhhH is also coming out in 2016, and is based on the novel by Laurent Binet.

In the aftermath of Operation: Anthropoid, the German army took retribution on a village of civilians, and that story was told in the 2011 film Lidice, which has some of the same actors as Anthropoid.

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