Back in 2016 I caught Sean Ellis’ Anthropoid, a depiction of the titular World War II operation to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, carried out by members of the Czechoslovakian resistance and army-in-exile. With Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan as the leads, it was a taut, grim and powerful representation of what occurred, focusing entirely on the Czechoslovakian side of affairs. I had only two complaints about Anthropoid: that it balked from examining the moral ambiguity of the assassination plot, and that it choose to completely ignore Heydrich or the crimes that made him a target.
I knew that another film, from Cedric Jimenez, was in production at the same time as Anthropoid, that covered the same events, being an adaptation of the novel HHhH by Laurent Binet. For whatever reason, though I would imagine it was a n exercise in distancing given the competition, the oft-renamed Killing Heydrich (known variously as HHhH and The Man With The Iron Heart depending on the market) is only being given a more general release two years later, and looks likely to get the majority of its audience on Netflix. With a hell of a task on its hands in competing with the excellent Anthropoid, was Jimenez’ attempt at telling the story of the Heydrich assassination up to scratch, or is it just a pale imitation?
In Hitler’s Germany, Reinhard Heydrich (Jason Clarke) rises to prominence in the Nazi Party, eventually being seen as the right-hand of Henrich Himmler in the SS, combining organisation of the Final Solution with being the repressive Governor of occupied Czechoslovakia, while increasingly unhappy wife Lina (Rosamund Pike) looks on. When soldiers-in-exile Jan (Jack O’Connell) and Josef (Jack Reynor) are parachuted into their homeland with the aim of assassinating Heydrich, the stage is set for a fateful encounter between the three men.
There are obvious similarities between Killing Heydrich and Anthropoid, something that is practically inevitable. The third acts of both films, in particular, have mirrored plot beats, with the main differential being a certain overt brutality being better displayed in Ellis’ film. I feel a discussion on the merits of one over the other may be best directed by thinking about the two key flaws, in my eyes, of Anthropoid, and how Killing Heydrich tackles them.
The first is the shallowness of approach towards the key moral question of the story, that is whether it is right to kill Heydrich due to the scale of the reprisal that will be inflicted on innocent Czechoslovakians in the aftermath. Like Anthropoid, Killing Heydrich decides not to engage with the question too much, unfortunately, the debate on the matter taking up only a single scene, and the objections to the plan being knocked aside with relative ease. Killing Heydrich wants to portray it’s two “parachutists” as romantic heroes and Heydrich as a villain worth killing: anything else is just noise, apparently. The inability of Anthropoid to really tackle this question stopped it from being in the top tier of the genre, and, unfortunately, Killing Heydrich is even worse.
The second is Heydrich himself. In Anthropoid he appeared only in his assassination scene, a non-entity in narrative terms, and I posited in my review that the film could arguably have been improved if it had given itself the time to showcase Heydrich and his crimes a bit more, to truly get the audience invested in both his destruction and in the main characters’ determination to kill him.
Well, Killing Heydrich gives him plenty of time, engaging an unexpected split narrative, with Clarke’s depiction of the character taking up the entire first act, before the second switches to the assassins, before things come together in the third for the aftermath of the attack. And, having now seen the approach, I don’t think it works very well. It isn’t Clarke’s fault, who portrays Heydrich with a nice mix of intense sociopathy and violent emotion. But you’re left wondering what the point is, of giving a full 45 minutes of the move to Heidrich’s life: his time in the Kreigsmarine, his being cast out from the same in disgrace for a tawdry affair, his marriage to ambitious Lina, his rise in the ranks of the Nazi Party, the setting up of the infamous Einsatzgruppen, his appointment as “Reichs Protector” in Czechoslovakia and so on.
It isn’t that this stuff isn’t interesting – there’s a Macbeth/Lady Macbeth dynamic to Heydrich and his wife that is fascinating enough, tied explicitly to a sort of raw sexual energy between the two – it’s that there doesn’t seem to be a narrative point to it. Is Jimenz trying to humanise Heydrich by depicting his background? Hardly, if anything he comes off less human by the end. Is he trying to make us sympathise with him in a twisted sense, as Der Untergang did with Hitler? If so, it isn’t a successful attempt, as Heydrich simply progresses from asshole to genocidal asshole. Is he trying to get the audience to hate Heydrich even more in an elongated sense, by giving the whole first part of the film to his increasingly villainy? This seems the most logical explanation, but the way it is executed – by making Killing Heydrich a biopic of the titular Nazi for the first act – rapidly becomes overbearing and, frankly, odd. Either way, a huge portion of the first hour goes by with only Nazi’s on-screen, which really isn’t the best way to get your audience engaged.
In the end, it makes Killing Heydrich feel almost like an incomplete docu-drama, like the presentation of Heydrich is just to inform the audience of his life and has no other purpose. You keep waiting for the talking heads to interrupt the scenes with their expert analysis. As such there is a certain lifelessness to certain points, and the film doesn’t really kick into gear until the second act, when Jack O’Connell and Jack Reynor arrive.
Their portion of the film could be in sepia, so similar is to the traditional beats of the SOE-genre of WW2 films. Jan and Jozef, best pals out to fight the Nazi menace and liberate their country, parachute in, engage in daring-do to take out Heydrich, fall in love with a pair of beautiful locals, and go out guns blazing in a heroic last-stand inside a church. Anthropoid took a much grimmer, gritty approach to this kind of stuff, and it felt much more like reality in the process.
Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, struggle with the enormity of what they are trying to accomplish, with the latter coming close to backing out; their love interests, played by older actresses giving off a more mature, jaded vibe than Mia Wasikowska and Abigail Lawrie, were interesting in their own right, and not just hangers-on as their counterparts in Killing Heydrich largely are. As such Killing Heydrich lacks a strong character element among its protagonists, perhaps because it spent so much time on the guy who gets offed two-thirds of the way in. O’Connell and Reynor do alright, but lack the chemistry of the other pair (and I don’t know how three Irish-born and one Irish-descended actors got these parts. Are the accents similar or something?).
In other ways separate to Anthropoid, Killing Heydrich is largely derivative. The marching Nazis, the unfurled swastikas, the perfect order and symmetry of the German fascist machine, we’ve seen it all time and again. It’s something I have been thinking about more with these kinds of films since being exposed to Folding Ideas’ thoughts on the modern perception of the Nazi’s being largely dictated by the Nazi’s own propaganda, and the samey-ness of all these depictions is starting to become apparent to me now.
Killing Heydrich is a grey/brown looking creature, where only the occasional glimpses of snow white in the wilderness of Czechoslovakia stand-out. Anthropoid was dark-looking too, but there it felt like a conscious attempt to tie into the kind of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy griminess reflecting the profession being depicted. Here, it’s just basic. Only on a few occasions does the film burst into life visually, like in an unexpectedly jaunty montage sequence for the assassins as garnering information on their target turns to frolicking love affairs, or when Heydrich reacts to being turned out of the German Navy in disgrace. At times Jimenez can find the telling moment, such as when Lina hears Himmler describe her husband as “the man with the iron heart” at a party, as she watches her husband cradle their infant child.
Sean Ellis can rest easy. Killing Heydrich is an inferior attempt to tell the same story, that goes too far in giving the war criminal such a focus and can’t muster up sufficient interest and empathy with the apparent heroes. It doesn’t look the best and feels like something made for the Discovery Channel rather than the big screen. While the cast is trying its hardest, the lacklustre material they have to work with is insurmountable. In the end, Anthropoid is superior on every level, and Killing Heydrich is doomed to irrelevancy as a result. Not recommended.
It is neat how they worked in the other title.
(All images are copyright of Mars Films).