31 December 1999 | Varlaam
Gripping in its intensity
In 1942, the Czech underground assassinates Reinhard Heydrich, the governor of Bohemia-Moravia. Heydrich's assassin tries to escape capture.
This is based on a true story of course -- it's a well-known episode of World War II. Czech commandos were brought in from Britain on a mission with a slim chance of survival for the selfless agents. They unfortunately met a sad end after being betrayed by a fellow Czech. The history is described very well in books such as Callum MacDonald's "The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich".
In 1943, when this film was made, were the full details of the actual events widely available in the USA? I'm not sure, but it seems unlikely.
The story as presented here is the tale of what happens one day when a girl goes out to buy vegetables for supper, and when a taxi driver lets his finicky engine idle. Perhaps this plot was fabricated for want of any other alternative, but its sheer ordinariness adds to its immediacy.
The reptilian Heydrich was one of the architects of Hitler's Final Solution. It's no coincidence that the plan to assassinate him was code-named "Anthropoid".
Hans Heinrich von Twardowski plays him briefly at the beginning of the drama. He's cold-blooded, vicious, rabid ... and a little effeminate. That aspect seems questionable. In 1943, there were at least as many reasons for knowing what his character represented as there were occupied countries in Europe. This particular embellishment seems to add little or nothing to the suspense.
(Twardowski himself was a German exile in Hollywood. If you can read German and have a look at the titles of the films he made in 1928 and 1929, you can probably hazard a guess as to why he was forced to leave Hitler's Germany.)
Brian Donlevy plays the assassin. It's not by chance that this character is named Dr. Svoboda. Svoboda is a common name, but it also happens to be the Czech word for "freedom".
I always find Donlevy effective, particularly so in "The Great McGinty" (1940) for Preston Sturges, but he does have a certain B actor limitation on access to his character's inner thoughts. He doesn't quite have the hunted quality of someone facing certain capture and torture. A perspiring lip might have helped.
Better is Alexander Granach as the Gestapo man Gruber, a Bob Hoskins sort of person, only sinister. He's ruthless, cunning, perfect in the part.
Walter Brennan appears as a Czech professor arrested and held as a hostage. Prof. Walter Brennan, that's right! He's very good. Considering the typecasting he must have been fighting against, he's excellent in fact.
My moderate criticism of some of the performances notwithstanding, the suspense in the story was of the nail-biting kind, I felt. I wouldn't have wanted to watch this in 1943 -- it's just too bleak, too disturbing. When hostages are being held by the Gestapo, it's a lose-lose situation all around. All possible outcomes are disastrous.
I guess the filmmakers felt -- knew -- that this would be more than a contemporary audience could really handle in the middle of wartime. Hence the film has an uplifting, artificial, fantasy ending which arrives like a deus ex machina.
That's certainly a drawback for viewers now, but I can't fault anyone. The context of the times couldn't have allowed any other solution.
Fritz Lang directed this return to Mitteleuropa, the scene of his youth and early classic films. He runs the show like a police procedural, making it all too real. He allows himself a couple of his great shots which I will allow you to discover for yourself.
In real life, the actual Czech assassins -- Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, plus their look-out man, Josef Valcik -- were all killed in battle at their hiding place in the Karel Boromejsky Church in Prague on June 18, 1942.
Heydrich's state funeral had been held earlier in Berlin on June 9. The Nazis had Siegfried's Funeral March from Wagner's "Götterdämmerung" played for the occasion, probably with extra added bombast.
That's the sort of heroic farewell that the martyred Czechs should have received.