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The killing of a Nazi … for reel June 11, 2017

Posted by guestposter in Uncategorized.
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Many thanks to Joe Mooney for the following:

 

 

 

Just over 75 years ago, on the 4th June 1942 Reinhard Heydrich died from wounds received in a gun and bomb attack a week earlier. He was the most senior Nazi leader to be assassinated, and this fact, alongside the dramatic nature of the ambush and the brutal aftermath is probably what inspired so many movie adaptations of the events. As an anti fascist and a movie buff, today I get a rare opportunity to combine both passions as I take a look at four of the films which dealt with Heydrichs death. Made between 1943 and 2016, these have involved such talents as directors Fritz Lang and Douglas Sirk and actors as varied as Brian Donlevey , John Carradine and Cillian Murphy.

 

The background to the occupation of Czechoslovakia and it’s anti Nazi resistance during World War Two is worth understanding. In 1938 France and Britain signed the Munich Agreement (often referred to as ‘The Munich Betrayal’) which surrendered to demands from Adolf Hitler and gave possession of much of the border region (and industrial base) to Nazi Germany. Plans to invade Czechoslovakia were already in place and imminent, and this act of appeasement was designed to prevent this, and famously led to the pronouncement by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that he had achieved “peace in our time”.

This region became the Sudetenland, and all it’s citizens were expected to become German Nationals. This led to a large scale exodus of those unwilling to submit to this from the region into the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Among the German speaking population membership of the Nazi Party grew rapidly and proportionally the Sudetenland became one of the most pro-Nazi areas within the Third Reich. All other political parties were banned. As expected, remaining Czechs, along with the Jewish population, socialists, communists and trade unionists all faced persecution. In 1939 the remainder of Czechoslovakia was over-run by the Fascist regime.

With no possibility of military opposition and following the capitulation of his supposed allies, the President of the Republic, Edvard Beneš resigned almost immediately after the ‘Munich betrayal’, and correctly predicted the further expansion of Nazi dominance. Many military minded Czechs opposed to Nazi expansionism would join the French Army, but with the capitulation of that nation and the establishment of the collaborationist Vichy Regime these relocated to Britain. A group of exiles, led by Edvard Beneš established a Czechoslovak National Liberation Committee, which in 1940 (as full scale world war raged on) was recognised as a Government in Exile. An Army-in-exile of sorts was also created.

 

 

Within Czechoslovakia the anti fascist Resistance movement was less successful than in other occupied countries, and seems to have been largely suppressed by the regime. Sabotage in the industries was common place, and deliberate slow downs and non co-operation a preferred method of fight-back, but military action was largely absent. In Britain, many of the exiles, identifying themselves as Free Czechoslovaks received Paratrooper training under the direction of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) of the British Military. A number of others served with distinction as pilots in the R.A.F).

Reinhard Heydrich had a prominent and successful career within the Nazi regime – He was chief of the Intelligence services of the SS , a Gestapo leader , had helped with the propaganda tour-de-force that was the 1936 Berlin Olympics , was one of the architects of the ‘final solution’ and was at one time thought of as a possible successor to Adolf Hitler. In 1941 he was appointed as Acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, becoming the ruler of Nazi dominated Czechoslovakia. His reign was brutal – he announced his intentions to “Germanize the Czech vermin” and to achieve this he would use “methods based on racist thought”. He set about eradicating all vestiges of a Czech national identity, stamping out any opposition to Nazi rule and increasing industrial output, crucial to the German military. Executions and deportations to the concentration camps increased rapidly, and he soon became a hate figure, branded ‘The Butcher of Prague’.

As his rule of terror spread, the Government in Exile decided that drastic action must be taken, and Operation Anthropoid was developed. Working with British support a team of parachutists was dropped and made their way to Prague to plan and carry out his execution. Two operatives Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš were assigned the task. In conjunction with members of a domestic resistance network they were safe housed in Prague and considered the possibilities and possible locations. Heydrich travelled to the centre of Prague each morning in a Mercedes convertible, and despite warnings about his personal safety he arrogantly believed nobody would dare attack him. It was decided to ambush his car with machine gun fire in the centre of Prague at a turning at which the car had no choice but to slow down. On the morning of 27th June the attack took place, but when the sten-gun being used by Gabčík jammed, a grenade thrown by Kubiš injured the Nazi. Both men made their escape while exchanging pistol fire with Heydrich and his driver. The men were eventually brought to a hiding place at Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral with the co-operation of the bishop, where they joined five other parachutists. However, their location was betrayed and on the 18th June, the two executioners and their comrades were surrounded by 750 SS troops and after a fierce battle all were dead.

 

 

In reprisal for the execution of Heydrich , up to 5,000 people were murdered by the Nazis . Most notoriously, the village of Lidice was targeted by the Gestapo for alleged links with the attackers, and all its residents were either murdered or deported to concentration camps, the buildings burned down and their ruins demolished. They literally set out to wipe the village from the map.

Today, the ‘Operation Anthropoid Memorial’ stands at the location where Heydrich was attacked. ‘The National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror’ can be found in the cathedral. There are a number of small memorials in the United Kingdom recalling where the men had trained. A memorial, museum and gardens can be found at the village of Lidice.

 

The earliest movie adaptation of these events was in production by the end of the year they occurred, and was released in early 1943. And this year yet another version has been released. I have seen four different cinematic accounts of the assassination, and will look at them in the reverse order of newest first.

 

 

Anthropoid” (2016) is the most accessible by a modern audience, and probably the most historically accurate. It certainly has star power – with two Irish actors in the leading roles, with Jamie Dorman and Cillian Murphy playing Kubiš and Gabčík . The movie begins with the men being dropped and making their way to Prague. It follows their initial meeting with the domestic resistance, romantic relationships and friendship which develop with the family safe housing them, their preparation for the operation, and the attack and it’s brutal aftermath. It highlights very well the tension which historically did exist between the demands of the Government in exile and the realities of those experiencing day to day life within the country, which led to attempts to cancel the assassination despite Kubiš and Gabčík determination to follow their orders. The suspense leading up to the attack is very well portrayed, as is the sense of panic and terror as the Nazis try to track down the men. The main action scene, with the parachutists surrounded and under fierce siege within the Cathedral is excellent and captures perfectly their hopeless position but determination to fight on. Well worth a viewing, and despite some expected dramatic licence appears to the best of my knowledge to be historically accurate.

Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters

 

“Operation Daybreak” (1975) is very similar to “Anthropoid” in it’s construction but included a few different elements. We get to meet the men before they leave the United Kingdom on their mission and we also get to see an aborted attempt to assassinate Heydrich as he leaves Prague on a train. While this attempt did not actually happen, such an attack was actually considered but judged to difficult to carry out. Heydrich is portrayed by German actor Anton Diffring , who spent a lot of his career as a villainous doctor in horror movies or as a villainous Nazi (including “Where Eagles Dare”). Unfortunate typecasting, as Diffring had actually fled from Nazi Germany, but he was pretty good in the part. Also in the cast as one of the Czech operatives is Martin Shaw, unforgettable to those of us of a certain generation as CI5 agent Doyle in “The Professionals”. The scenes in the cathedral are also very well done in this version, and overall is pretty decent judged as an action or historical movie. Directed by Lewis Gilbert, who was also responsible for three of the Bond movies and “Shirley Valentine”!

 

 

“Hitlers Madman” (1943) was a real surprise, being much better than I expected. Not as historically accurate as the later movies (as the full details were not widely known), it concentrates more on Heydrich and in particular focuses on the destruction of Lidice. It was the directorial debut in the United States of Douglas Sirk . He had made eight films in his homeland of Germany (and had actually met Heydrich) but left the country and Nazi rule after his Jewish wife was forced to flee. The film has all the characteristics of a quick & cheap cash-in, but rises above expectations. It was shot in less than a week at one of the notorious Poverty Row Studios, well known for it’s output of low budget B-movies. However, word got out that this was a superior effort, and MGM studios bought and distributed it.

 

 

John Carradine, who featured in numerous westerns and horror movies, played Heydrich, and though always prone to over acting and hamming it up he is actually perfect in the role. He certainly looks like him. The low budget is evident at times, but some of the scenes really stand out and are quiet memorable. Even before Heydrich took control, a student demonstration against Nazi rule in Prague led to the closure of the universities, the execution a number of student leaders and deportation of 1,000 more to a concentration camp. In the movie we see Heydrich instigate the suppression of a university – he lines the female students up and chooses the ones which can be sent to the front to ‘entertain’ the troops , while he mocks and dismisses the ones that can just go straight to the camp. Still a bit unpleasant to watch and Carradine is suitably menacing. The assassination of the Nazi takes place on a country road, where his car is machine gunned. Of course not historically accurate, but interesting as such an attack site was proposed, but this plan was eventually abandoned. It is unlikely that this was known by the film-makers.

A scene where Heydrich drives into the village of Lidice as a religious procession is taking place and shoots the priest is pure fiction, but an effective piece of dramatic licence within the context of the movie. The scenes of the villagers being machine gunned are also not portrayed as actually occurred , but is very powerfully presented and the closing scenes of the film as we witness the burning of Lidice as the images of the dead villagers pass by is unforgettable. Overall this probably appears quite dated, but at the time it was a decent propaganda piece. It overcomes it’s cheap origins to be an emotionally powerful depiction of the reprisals and Carradine gives probably the best performance of his career as the most vicious monster he ever played.

 

“Hangmen also die” (1943) was the first movie to depict these events, and was in production just months after Heydrich’s death. Directed by one of the giants of early movie making, Fritz Lang, who had an interesting connection with the Nazi regime. One of the founding fathers of cinema, his earlier German made movies include the classics “Metropolis”, “M” and “The Testament of Dr Mabuse”. In 1933 he was offered the opportunity by Joseph Goebbels to become head of the German Cinema Institute. He turned this down, and after leaving his meeting with the Nazi propaganda minister he would quickly leave the country, finding a new home and new movie career in the United States. This movie was written in conjunction with Bertolt Brecht, the playwright & poet, who had also fled Germany and the Nazi regime. At times the movie seems to be moving in different directions, possibly as a result of two such powerful personalities at the helm. It is not just an action adventure or even a propaganda piece; there is an attempt to examine the moral responsibilities of those involved.

The movie opens with a short scene featuring Heydrich , but really begins with the immediate aftermath of the assassination. Brian Donlevy (a prolific tough guy actor) plays the Partisan gunman who is escaping on foot after the attack. He is spotted by a young woman who sends his pursuers the wrong way, and as a curfew is imposed, the desperate fugitive convinces her to give him shelter in her family home. The investigation soon puts her family in danger. As the Nazi regime tightens its grip the resistance movement tries to continue it’s operation and aid the fugitive , unaware that there is a traitor in their midst. Fritz Lang created his best work in Germany (much of which has stood the test of time), and while I think that while this is a pretty good thriller it can’t match the earlier productions, and feels surprisingly dated. As one would expect from Lang there are some very well staged scenes and a great collection of visually interesting characters. The more contrived and melodramatic elements of the plot – a sort of accidental love triangle misunderstanding and an overly complicated (though amusing) scheme to expose the traitor – don’t blend well with the more serious elements. The best moments are when the woman enters Gestapo headquarters while still wrestling with the moral dilemma of whether to save her family by betraying the assassin, and the scenes of defiance from the hostages as they await their execution in the reprisals. The closing scene is also very well done, though it is pure propaganda. Made so soon after the actual events this was aimed at a very particular audience and would have fulfilled it’s purpose admirably. In terms of historical accuracy , being made so soon meant the full facts were most likely not known , with the attack presented entirely as a home grown Czechoslovakian plot , and no siege on the perpetrators either.

 

 

There are a few more Heydrich movies out there, and there’s a new one coming out this year. Maybe four is enough for any man to watch, but all these are sufficiently different to be worth the effort, and I’d recommend checking any of them out, though I’d go with “Anthropoid” and “Hitler’s Madman” as the best options.

 

 

 

 

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Comments»

1. WorldbyStorm - June 11, 2017

Here’s Operation: Daybreak in smallovision!

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