Writers: Cédric Jimenez, Audrey Diwan, David Farr (screenplay), Laurent Binet (novel HHhH)
Cast: Jason Clarke, Rosamund Pike, Stephen Graham, Jack Reynor, Jack O’Connell, Geoff Bell, Mia Wasikowska
Running time: 120mins
What’s the story: After joining the Nazi party, disgraced Naval officer Reinhard Heydrich swiftly becomes Himmler’s second-in-command and an architect of the Holocaust. In 1942 in Prague, while escalating the Nazi’s genocidal policies, Heydrich becomes the target of an Allied Forces assassination plot.
What’s the verdict: Operation Anthropoid, the plot to assassinate Heydrich, has quietly become a sub-genre of World War Two cinema.
Two high profile versions of the event were released in 1943. Hangmen Also Die, directed by Fritz Lang and adapted from a story by Bertolt Brecht, released through United Artists. Over at MGM, Douglas Sirk’s Hitler’s Madman starred John Carradine as Heydrich.
Atentát was a 1964 Czechoslovakian account of the assassination and the resultant recriminations against the Czech people. 1975’s Operation Daybreak was helmed by regular Bond director Lewis Gilbert and starred Anton Diffring as the tyrant. Although Jewish, Diffring’s aristocratic, angular features saw him frequently cast as a Nazi officer.
More recent examples are the 2011 Lidice (named after a village that was massacred as a reprisal against Heydrich’s death) and the 2016 Anthropoid. The latter starred Cillian Murphy as Jozef Gabčík, one of the soldiers involved in the mission. Both these versions featured Detlef Bothe as Heydrich, the actor closely resembling Himmler’s number 2.
The Man with the Iron Heart (also known as HHhH after Laurent Binet’s source novel) actually had its original 2016 release date shifted back due to the plot similarities with Anthropoid.
The opening forty-five minutes detail Heydrich’s life from his early twenties to the arrival of Gabčík (Reynor) and fellow soldier Jan Kubiš (O’Connell) in Czechoslovakia. These early-life plot details are rarely explored, but anyone who has seen Anthropoid is still likely to experience déjà vu.
This first act moves briskly through Heydrich’s expulsion from the Navy due to scandal, the relationship with his wife and committed Nazi Lina (Pike), and his increasingly horrific methods of dealing with political opponents, rivals in his own party and those deemed racially inferior.
Re-enactments of ethnic cleansing, including the massacre at Lidice, are harrowingly staged and the assassination attempt itself is effective, although not conveying the same sense of panic and terror as in Anthropoid.
A sizeable amount of historical information is thrown at the audience. To their credit, French director Jimenez and his two scriptwriters underline important events, so the audience is never lost amidst the names and shifting locations.
As Heydrich, described by Adolf Hitler as “the man with the iron heart”, Clarke delivers a performance of calculating evil (favouring a British accent). A usually likeable presence in films, Clarke here removes the light from his eyes and hardens his features into a perma-expression of pitilessness.
Shame then that The Man with the Iron Heart is content to be a conventional retelling of Anthropoid. Binet’s book HHhH (taken from a caustic quip in the Nazi party that Himmler’s Brain is Heydrich) is not only an historical account of Heydrich’s life and the assassination plot, but a commentary on the act of writing about true events, the impossibility of total historical accuracy, and other fictional treatments of the mission.
Jimenez and his co-scriptwriters miss an opportunity in ignoring this aspect of the novel. To tell the story, The Man with the Iron Heart substitutes various historical locations (though set in Prague, much of it was shot in Budapest) and takes liberties with character events and timelines. Curiously, the filmmakers omit the rumour of some Jewish heritage in Heydrich’s family that dogged the fanatical Nazi.
An inventive way of annotating these decisions would have made this a far more interesting addition to the Anthropoid canon.
Of the supporting players, Pike is the stand-out as the fervent believer who introduces her beau to National Socialism, only to see herself sidelined as he rises through the ranks. Stephen Graham and Geoff Bell also impress as Himmler and Gestapo head Heinrich Müller. Mia Wasikowska has little to do in a minor role as a resistance agent who begins a relationsihp with Kubiš.
Efficient and well-mounted, but with the story often told, it is a shame all involved missed an opportunity to experiment with the approach.