The Man with the Iron Heart

Director: Cédric Jimenez

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

Cert: 15

Running time: 120mins

Year: 2017

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.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
iTunes Podcast: The Electric Shadows Podcast

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2 thoughts on “The Man with the Iron Heart”

  1. Hi DK,

    I read it as the film saying that fascism corrupts everything, including a loving relationship. Hitler’s Hangman, the biography of Heydrich by Robert Gerwarth, is a well-researched book that details the affair that saw him dishonourably discharged from the Navy, plus later affairs he conducted when Protector of “Bohemia and Moravia”, as the Nazis called those conquered areas.

    I didn’t see it as the film impugning the sexuality of all Germans, more that the sexual peccadillos of Nazi officers (frequenting brothels, etc) was used for personal advancement through blackmail by Heydrich.

    Kenneth Branagh said when he was reseaching the man for Conspiracy, he found there was really nothing to him other than cynical ambition that he used to murderous effect. For me Conspiracy is still the best depiction of Heydrich that I have seen.

    I was not surprised that Lena Heydrich defended him after his death. To do otherwise would make her complicit in knowing the actions men in his command were executing. Plus, she was a committed Nazi from early on, which would warp her beliefs around goodness and morality.

    But, you make an interesting point regarding their personal life. And one that I think the film would have better addressed if it had matched the structure of Laurent Binet’s source novel, which is all about the impossibility of creating a “true story” from real life characters.

    And of course, many thanks for taking the time to read the review and leave a comment. Rob

  2. I liked the movie and thought it two hours well spent even if the film took certain liberties with the facts. (forget for now the liberties taken with the details surrounding the action of the actual assassination , as i suppose they can be ascribed to ‘poetic license’) For instance, why was it necessary to impugn the sexuality of all the germans?
    Every time a german had sex it was portrayed as sinister and every time anyone else had sex it was portrayed as wholesome. The guy is already regarded as one of the worst mass murderers in history a long with being responsible for some of the worst violations human rights imaginable. Wasn’t it a bit over the top to call in to question his sex life? I know he was kicked out of the navy for breaking a marriage commitment, but even the details of that relationship are nothing but speculation and only the two of them know what happened and even at that there is certain to be two very different versions. At one point in the movie it was implied that one or both of the heydrich’s (lena and reinhard) got some sort of sexual pleasure from murder. Is it just too much to begrudge that he could have been a loving spouse and parent to any extent? As i understand it, his wife defended his reputation for the rest of her life. Is it too much to suppose the two had a somewhat normal marriage in the respect that there were both good times and times of difficulty between the two? Yet, the movie, which spent considerable time with the interpersonal communication between husband and wife, could not begrudge one ‘good’ moment between them. The world already umderstands he was a mass murderer and a seriously flawed individual. Is there any evidence to support he was some sort of sexual deviant too? The movie supposed too much for nothing more than a purpose of sexual humiliation where there is little evidence and no need.

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