Theories about the morality of war flourished after World War II as philosophers debated what constituted a “just war”. During the same period, a parallel genre of cinema emerged that often anticipated or echoed the arguments of philosophers.
“Just war” cinema has two characteristics. First, by contrast with “anti-war” cinema, it takes seriously the possibility that war is sometimes morally justified. Second, it tackles ethical questions arising for those caught up in just wars as soldiers. Recent such films are often set in controversial conflicts or examine the implications of new methods such as targeted killing by drone strike, such as this year’s Eye in the Sky.
But just war cinema cut its teeth depicting World War II, sometimes called “the good war” in deference to its relatively uncontested status in popular imagination. Portrayals of Allied soldiers fighting the Nazis can rely on a wide consensus about the justice of their cause, permitting film-makers to switch off the background noise of controversy concerning the purposes of war and focus attention on the moral dilemmas faced by participants.
Enter Anthropoid, a new film that once again returns to this conflict. Director Sean Ellis set out to narrate the eponymous plot to assassinate the “Butcher of Prague”, SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, by a group of Czech commandos in May 1942.
Jozef Gabčík (played by Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) were parachuted into occupied Czechoslovakia to lead the mission in December 1941, sent from Britain by the Special Operations Executive and the Czech government in exile.
By that time, Heydrich was the most eligible candidate imaginable for targeted attack. He was acting “Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia” and head of the Reich criminal and political police, and had been a pivotal organiser of the greatest crimes of Nazism. He had helped provide Hitler with a pretext to invade Poland in 1939, triggering World War II, and had been in charge of the “Final Solution” since January 1941. By the time of the plot (and unbeknownst to the conspirators) Heydrich had also chaired the notorious Wannsee Conference at which senior Nazis worked out systematically the plans for genocide in January 1942.
Yet justifying Heydrich’s assassination was not a simple matter, as Anthropoid’s heroes discover. In the film, they find themselves grappling with a profound tension between the core principles of just war theory.
The more vicious an enemy is in a just war, the more compelling the cause is for fighting them. But paradoxically, in the most extreme cases, the greater the evil of an enemy, the harder it may be to justify an attack.
This is because if a regime is prepared to act like the Nazis in Prague and inflict massive, indiscriminate violence in retaliation to any attack, it poses an impossible dilemma for its opponents. They will have to choose between not resisting at all and committing acts that have such terrible consequences for their compatriots as to be self-defeating.
Given this predicament, how could the plotters justify an attack on Heydrich?
Anthropoid’s screenwriters, Ellis and Anthony Frewin, suggest a variety of different arguments. Gabčík (Murphy) occasionally deflects the question of personal responsibility by citing “orders”, and even declares that it doesn’t matter what happens afterwards. More promisingly, a priest who hides the conspirators, Father Petrek, advises that they are morally responsible only for their own actions, not those that others take in reply. For those, only the Nazis are ultimately accountable.
Anthropoid thus adds a further, distinctive wrinkle to the question of collateral damage: the side-effects of an attempt on Heydrich were as inevitable as those posed by drone strikes, but would be inflicted by others in revenge.
But even Petrek’s suggestion isn’t very satisfying. Moral responsibility isn’t a simple zero-sum game. Different parties can be responsible for the same outcomes in different ways.
Consequently, soldiers must take account of the evil consequences that they can foresee in making decisions. But they may be able to justify triggering them provided that their objectives are valuable enough. Deciding if they are is hardly simple in Anthropoid. The conspirators struggle to specify the objective that killing Heydrich is expected to secure.
The closing titles of the film point to the fact that Britain officially repudiated the Munich Agreement, which allowed Germany to annexe portions of Czechoslovakia before the war, after the reprisals and committed to restoring Czech territory conceded to the Germans. But if this is intended to vindicate the commandos, it rings hollow given Czechoslovakia’s short-lived postwar independence.
There are also rhetorical assertions of a duty simply to resist, almost without regard for consequences – Gabčík declares that “all Czechs should be prepared to die for their country”. But these merely beg the question: resistance how and to precisely what end? The key problem is, as one sceptical partisan argues, this SS leader will be replaced by another, rendering the usefulness of killing him doubtful.
So the film lacks a philosophically satisfying moral argument. The screenplay instead establishes Kubiš (Dornan) and his fiancée in the film, Marie Kovárníková (Charlotte Le Bon), as a pair with grave reservations about the conspiracy early in the film and then follows them as they change their views through the course of the action. The result is a tendency sometimes to conflate the fate of the plotters with that of the wider Czechoslovakian population, muddying the water somewhat.
But the film’s superbly crafted closing sequences convey a deeper sense of the essentially tragic nature of the dilemma at its heart. When one commando reads from Caesar’s lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it is intended to encourage Kubiš and his comrades:
Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant never taste of death but once.
But the lines incidentally allude to the hubris of Heydrich, arrogantly neglecting his personal security just like the Roman tyrant. In doing so, it also recalls the figure of Brutus: like Gabčík and Kubiš, compelled to act by an unshakeable sense of moral duty, he too unintentionally unleashes the most dreadful consequences for his fellow citizens. As the closing titles report, by the time the ghost of Prague’s fallen tyrant finishes “ranging for revenge”, his “dogs of war” will have wiped the village of Lidice from the face of the earth and murdered an estimated 5,000 people.
And yet, like Brutus, the Czech assassins undoubtedly were extraordinarily brave and “honourable” men, as this often very moving film with its compelling performances from Murphy, Dornan, Le Bon, Anna Geislerová, Toby Jones, and Alena Mihulová powerfully attests.