Synopsis – 1942: The Third Reich is at its peak. The Czech resistance in London decides to plan the most ambitious military operation of WWII: Anthropoid. Two young recruits in their late twenties, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, are sent to Prague to assassinate the most ruthless Nazi leader – Reich-protector Reinhard Heydrich, Head of the SS, the Gestapo, and the architect of the “Final Solution”.
My Take – The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the leader of Czechoslovakia under Nazi occupation and the man credited as being the architect of the Holocaust, has become one of the most often told WWII incidents to hit the screen, with two 1940s Hollywood dramas (Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die and Douglas Sirk’s Hitler’s Madman), a memorable 1964 Czech production (Atentát), 1975’s international co-production Operation Daybreak, and last year’s Sean Ellis directed Anthropoid starring Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan and Charlotte Le Bon. But unlike previous takes on the assassination, this film widens the scope to chart the life of the man at its core: Reinhard Heydrich, a disgraced military officer who was urged by his wife to join the fledgling SS and rose through its ranks to become the architect of the Final Solution, one of Hitler’s highest-ranking officials, and a Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia so ruthless he earned the nickname ‘The Butcher of Prague’. However rather unusually, director Cédric Jimenez splits his take on the events into roughly two halves, the first of which charts the unlikely ascent to power of Heydrich, a loser dismissed from the army who is initially egged on by his flag-waving, National-Socialism-loving wife. The second half catches up with the Czechoslovak Resistance fighters who plot Heydrich’s assassination, in the sense we get to witness two stories for the price of one. Even though this film is a better example of the war film genre, as it has more action and fighting, and some tense drama, it hard to overcome the material’s structural weaknesses as last year’s Anthropoid was a lot less glamorous and more exciting than the usual spy films. Based on the novel HHhH by Laurent Binet, the story follows Reinhard Heydrich (Jason Clarke), a committed naval officer who gets court-martialed and dismissed for having a sexual relationship with the daughter of powerful businessman, who happened to be a close friend of the Navy Head.
Distraught & angered by the decision, Heydrich, upon the insistence of his current girlfriend/ future wife, Lina (Rosamund Pike), joins the Nazi Party, under the command of chicken farmer-turned-Nazi bigwig, Heinrich Himmler (Stephen Graham), who appoints him to lead the Nazi intelligence agency. As soon WWII begins, Heydrich rises to the ranks by becoming the leader of Czechoslovakia under Nazi occupation and Himmler’s most trusted right-hand man. Elsewhere, two paratroopers, Slovak resistance fighter, Jan Kubis (Jack O’Connell), and his Czech colleague, Jozef Gabcik (Jack Reynor), land into the Czechoslovak countryside and make their way to Prague, where the Anna Novak (Mia Wasikowska) & the rest of the resistance hides the duo, so they can prepare for their mission – the assassination of Heydrich. According to the resistance, his death would cause a big blow to the Nazi party as till then none of their high-ranking officers had been attacked & would send their strategies into chaos. Here, Heydrich’s role as one of the architects of the Holocaust as well as the Night of the Long Knives is made much clearer, providing justification to the assassins. The timeline is a bit compressed for dramatic purposes, and some scenes of marital drama are thrown in. The Night of the Long Knives sequence provides some action to the early part of the film. This background fills in some of the gaps in most previous telling of this tale. The 2016 film Anthropoid, for example, only depicted Heydrich from a distance. As I mentioned before, the film feels like two separate films stitched into one, resulting in the storyline to seem a bit absurd & incomplete. Yes, unfortunately after the first hour the film almost completely abandons Heydrich and his wife (both have literally minutes of screen time in the second half, most of it together) and shifts focus to Czechoslovak paratroopers in Prague. Heydrich’s court-martial and dismissal from the Navy, his marriage and the birth of his children, his relationship with Himmler and rise through the SS, Gestapo purges and executions of political enemies, communists, and Jews, and the Wannsee Conference and presentation of the Final Solution, all fly by without much continuity from scene to scene. The film asks a lot of the viewer, and those unfamiliar with the key WWII events (briefly) detailed during its first half will struggle to keep up with what’s going on. The film seems skittish to get too far inside the central character for fear of humanizing him. But this has the opposite effect, and as it distances itself from Heydrich, his inhumanity is only blurred. Since then, it feels like director Jimenez just took the film Anthropoid (2016), cast new actors, re-shot the film shot by shot and cut out half of the scenes. If you have seen Anthropoid, you can skip the second half in its entirety and you won’t be missing much. There is also subplot about the Three Kings of the Czech resistance, a group of three men who really did exist. They played no role in the assassination of Heydrich, but were responsible for other actions including two bombings in Berlin. Bringing in the SS hunt for them adds some action and drama to the plot. Other standard elements from spy films such as the elaborate passing of notes and coded messages are also beefed up for drama. There is, of course, some romance thrown in, but the characters remain a bit too distant and underdeveloped. Another big failing here, it’s how the film drops Lina as soon as her husband dies; we know what happens to the rest of these characters, but I was most interested in the wife. She went on to live forty more controversial years in Germany, receiving a substantial pension due to her husband’s ranking in the military, and defended him until her death in 1985.
But despite being one of the film’s main characters, her fate doesn’t even merit an end title scrawl. While Reinhard’s character can almost be reduced to his placid exterior/monstrous interior duality, Lina’s character is more complex. She starts off as an early Nazi sympathizer who genuinely believed the party could turn her country around and who got her man out of the dumps and into a lucrative Nazi career but who finally finds herself married to someone who’s always absent and treats her like a glorified caretaker of his children. Her character is a much more of three-dimensional figure than the two stick-figure girlfriends the film’s heroes find themselves attracted to. (One of them is played by Mia Wasikowska, who doesn’t have much more to do than kiss Jan, wash his hair and dance around in slow-motion.) While the screenplay, structure and rhythm are far from perfect, there’s no denying that Jimenez seems like a talented director of actors and action and that he excels at getting the most out of each shot in terms of production value. Besides sticking to the point-of-view of Heydrich for half the running time, Jimenez further reinforces the impression of the story being told from the inside out by having cinematographer Laurent Tangy work mostly with handheld cameras, which place the audience right in the thick of things. Plus, there aren’t many contemporary English-language films where for almost 50 minutes, the only people onscreen are Nazis, which puts the audience in a weird spot as it has no real hero to identify with and there is no real conflict that needs to be solved (the lingering tension of the prologue’s brief flash-forward only lasts so long). Director Jimenez plays with this unease in a fascinating manner, alternating what at first sight feel like tender domestic scenes of the Heydrichs and their children with scenes of Reinhard involved in increasingly violent and then lethal scenarios as the Nazis come into power and WWII breaks out. Director Jimenez and his editor, Chris Dickens, not only cut between Heydrich’s very different professional and private lives but even within sequences they sometimes take a montage-collage approach. This is the case in the court-martial scenes, which are intercut with Reinhard’s violent outburst of anger afterwards. This approach lends the proceedings jagged edges from the start, instilling a sense of unease and feeding into a realization that underneath that placid, unreeling exterior, an unfeeling monster might be not only lurking but actually seething. This dichotomy arguably reaches its cold-blooded apex at a party scene at the Heydrichs, where Lina is told by one of her husband’s colleagues that Hitler has nicknamed her husband “the man with the iron heart,” while in the background, he lifts up their baby. Jason Clarke and Rosamund Pike create some strong characterizations as Heydrich and his wife. Jason Clarke depicts an emotionally cold character, quick to get into personal conflict and relentless in going after his goals. His rather harsh facial expression and square jaw help him is his role. Pike, meanwhile, gets more of a character arc as Lina Heydrich, a character rarely seen in film. She is the initial force behind Heydrich’s career with the SS, but eventually looks on in horror at the monster she has created. Despite rather limited screen time, Jack O’Connell and Jack Reynor are excellent here as Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabcík, and share a real sense of camaraderie; the relationship between the two assassins is the highlight of the film, and the final sequence of them together is particularly affecting. While the talented Mia Wasikowska is wasted. On the whole, ‘The Man with the Iron Heart’ is a fairly decent action thriller that is not a bad film per se, just oddly structured & rushed. In case you have seen Anthropoid, you know which is the better film.
Directed – Cédric Jimenez
Rated – R
Run Time – 120 minutes