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Atentát (1965) Vs. Hangmen (1943) Vs. Operation Daybreak (1975)--The Mirror of Murder Has Three Faces

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Atentát (1965) Vs. Hangmen (1943) Vs. Operation Daybreak (1975)--The Mirror of Murder Has Three Faces

On the advice of my dear friend and cinematic colleague Serdar202, I've taken in the--now-- third film that I've seen dealing with the subject of Reinhard Heydrich, Obergruppenfuhrer SS/SD and Reichsprotektor of Bohemia/Moravia (Czechoslovakia) .  .  .  the film called Atentat (1965) was made by a Czech named Jiri Sequens. This, combined with of course the Lang film and also the very well made and reasonably faithful Operation Daybreak

by Lewis Gilbert (1975) make three.

I must say that in terms of telling the tale of the historical event of the assassination and its aftermath in simple human terms of death, fear, porting into the viewer the dark and dismal days of World War Two yesteryear, Operation Daybreak with its simple, straightforward assembly of character with very light and subtle aesthetic cinematographic touches affects me the most profoundly of the three.

Unfortunately, Hangmen Also Die is nothing but pure speculation and thus fiction, despite its constituting my favorite American Lang--this admiration rests on the fabulously paranoid assembly of the cramped and claustrophobic world of blackhearted underground agents and police cracking wise with one another. Hangmen runs on the bleak fuel of the end-of-the-world humor and camaraderie that props up men existing in a world where nothing is out of bounds, nothing is sacred, and anything, no matter how abysmally wrong, is permitted .  .  .  a world shrugging at common murder tossed off like gum spit from a kids mouth. "Your mother's life is over George I'm sorry--what's next on the agenda for today?"

The film is thick with double cross colliding with false realities laying one on top of the other like toppings on a sub sandwich, punctuated with strangely surreal shadows slanting in from unexpected corners--the chiaroscuro of a nation afflicted with incipient political dementia.

Atentat by Sequens is another film altogether, benefiting from what Fritz Lang never had--hindsight knowledge of the true event. By this time the war was over--it was made twenty years after the fall of Nazi Germany and the occupation of his country--and the filmmakers knew relatively fully what happened .  .  .  who carried out the assassination, where the assassins came from, who trained them, and who preceded and followed them.

As has already been mentioned in an earlier blog entry on the Lang film, Operation Anthropoid was carried out by the Free Czech forces living in England with Benes in exile--trained in the UK with English special forces elements, Anthropoid was a paratroop insertion of assassins flown in by English planes, whose ultimate goal was the liquidation of Heydrich. The tale is incredibly nerve wracking as one has the historical vantage point of placing one's self speculatively in the paratroop agents' shoes .  .  .  flying in with such a fatal assignment, passing over the deadly anti-aircraft barriers in the air over Germany, and ultimately parachuting with a limited number of supplies to land with false papers and pure wits--hoping to successfully contact the Czech Resistance, assimilate into the population, slither into Prague, observe Heydrich, and successfully carry out the assassination in a city locked down by the German Sicherheitsdienst / Gestapo.

Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš were the two officers that made up the Anthropoid team. They were flown in in December of 1941 with another set of soldiers inserted into Czech territory under the codes Silver A and Silver B (the Silver operations were not charged with carrying out the assassination). The initial plan was for the two boys to be dropped into Pilsen where friendly elements were waiting for them to make contact--the RAF pilots however missed their waypoints and the two agents wound up dropped to the east and into the zone of Nehvizdy. Eventually both men finally slithered into Pilsen to make contact with their hosts, and then forward on to Prague. 

Atentát by Jiri Sequens is an ambitious, often powerful film that however allows its ambition to run away with itself--and thus its ultimate mission. Its tones are suitably grey and cloudy--it seems as if Sequens never shot on a day when the sun was out; it's a tone which suits the bleak events of the film.

A temporary aside which I'll shortly explain:

I'll never forget a book of poetry I read by a police officer in NYC called Catching Bodies by Philip Mahony--I remember in a little bookstore on Mercer Street in the early Nineties the little paperback had a photo of little kids from a Bronx ghetto standing on a chessboard in a vacant lot, and I opened it--then bought the book after scanning a few lines. In it there is a poem entitled "Complaint #13485, 77 Pct., 10/23/81" where he recounts a murder of an old man walking home in Brooklyn in the late night hours, shot at close range with the killer going through his pockets and running. BOOM, "Whah??" and you fall, you lay there dying and gasping, with some creep going through your pockets for a couple of bucks.

The officer recounts his coming to the scene and reliving this horrible scene leading up to his arrival, and writes something along the lines of (paraphrasing, the book is buried in my apt and I haven't looked at it for years) "Imagine! You are walking home one night; from your miserable job; suddenly; someone walks behind you; shoots you; Brooklyn late at night; as you lay there dying, coughing on your own blood; somebody goes through your pockets; taking your small amount of cash? THE WHOLE WORLD SHOULD SCREAM ABOUT THIS! People should throw up their windows and bang pots and pans because of this!" And goes on to underline the ordinary world and the silence.

This is the way I feel about Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, men who at their age should have been raising their children, dancing, working hard, fucking, kissing, loving their wives, and dreaming of their future with an extended family. Instead they are forced by the horror of the age into a nervewracking camaraderie with death, violent premature death, perhaps by torture, death who sleeps with them in their beds and whispering into their dreams, walks with them down every street, whispers into their ear from the moment of their assignment to the moment of their being sold out and their death by suicide and gunfire in the end. 

Atentat suffers a bit from its ambition, attempting to render the horror and claustrophobia of being boxed in by stress and death, trying to build character, render a sense of anticipation and manly adventure .  .  . while at the same time hyperextending its cast of characters and rendering a hypothetical thesis of critical suggestion: the film opens with the operational and competitive tensions between Reinhard Heydrich who created and headed the SD/RSHA and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris who headed the Abwehr. The difference between these two spy organizations is technical, but philosophically broad: Heydrich's SD was the intelligence gathering arm of the SS/internal police, which spread its hooks across the continent and out into the rest of the world as the war demanded. The Abwehr was the military's classical intelligence organization, initially having a gigantic head start on the far newer SD and thus with agents planted across the globe at least wherever a German embassy or diplomatic office existed, and almost certainly beyond.

However, the differences were far more severe: the SD was headed by the maniacally ambitious Heydrich, who spied obsessively on the Abwehr. It's methods were cunning and often, as resolution approached, often brutal. The Abwehr was more of a gentlemanly, military minded group, with the officer's code underwriting much of the operation's ethics. It was somewhat the equivalent of our DIA combined with a bit of the CIA. But Admiral Canaris was ultimately a decent man of the old school, with none of the ambitious, wretched and cunning bile of Heydrich--or Hitler .  .  .  who he ultimately turned on in the end, when it was revealed that he was party to and underwrote the assassination attempt on Hitler's life.

Sequens' film posits a theory that Canaris underwrote the assassination of Heydrich, which is a very long shot indeed. Heydrich and Canaris had a long history together in the Navy, and their families were intertwined through music and military service, and there is not a shred of evidence to back up the thesis that Canaris provided any support or looked the other way--stepping back and allowing the plot to happen. The film suggests this by the inclusion of the power play between the two, beginning the narrative with Heydrich arresting an Abwehr agent of Canaris', and with our beholding of unspecified machinations on Canaris' part, filled with schadenfreude and withering sarcasm when Heydrich is at last assassinated.

By wheedling down these needless roads the film misses out on the tighter human drama of the simple tale of Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš. We never get to know the two men--we never learn anything about them as individuals .  .  .  they're rendered as simple, steely-eyed masculine ciphers of Czech determination which completely misses the point of Czech heroism. Bravery is nonexistent if fear is not resident.

Although Atentat is a well made film with a certain authenticity to it--with lovely examples of here graceful and there manic camera movement, action set pieces, widescreen framing, dark and grey atmosphere, and with one of the best casting decisions I've ever seen to render the person of Heydrich--I nonetheless felt that the larger tale of two human beings with nervous systems forced into a grisly waltz with the phantom of death by the misery of the age .  .  .  this was missed.

Atentát (1965) Vs. Hangmen (1943) Vs. Operation Daybreak (1975)--The Mirror of Murder Has Three Faces

Operation Daybreak by Lewis Gilbert, on the other hand, benefits from the hindsight of the errors of both films. Like Atentat, Daybreak was shot almost entirely on location in Prague. Unlike the Sequens film however, Daybreak tells the simple story of two simple men forced into extraordinary circumstance. There is no question that these two films were shot on many of the same locations/recreations rendered with precise exactitude; events play out with the only possible functional shooting angles in certain locations/studio recreations; the cramped environs simply allowed no other choice. Some scenes are almost point to point exact.

Starring Timothy Bottoms (who would shoot Apocalypse Now with Coppola almost simultaneously, playing Lance the surfer) and Martin Shaw (a well known English actor currently famous for playing Inspector George Gently), this film scrapes away all extraneous material and distills the events down with little--though there are moments of occasional divergence from actual history--distraction. There is no larger political frame story or hypothesizing; for this the film benefits enormously. The film rides high the restrained style of color film-making prevalent in the 1970's: careful yet easy, brilliantly acted yet completely unobtrusive and absolutely lifelike, utterly unpretentious of style yet rampantly affecting.

Lewis Gilbert, whose biggest claim to fame among the general public was the direction of a few James Bond films which were so popular running up to that point, handles the material (along with legendary European cinematographer Henri Dacae) with a sensitivity and an intuition that never loses sight of the driving goal of the material .  .   . he steps back and simply allows the circumstances of plot and performance--and nonfictional backdrop--to work its magic.

Of the three films, in terms of the bar of history, Operation Daybreak by Lewis Gilbert must rise highest here. However, that's merely my opinion--and these are three fabulous films that all deserve to be seen.

Clive/Schreck

3/23/2015*** 


Published by Preston Clive , 23.03.2015 at 23:12

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serdar202
serdar202 24 March 15 07:22 I guess I must watch Operation Daybreak now ;) Text hided expand
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Preston Clive
Preston Clive 24 March 15 08:04 Hee hee . . . I just watched it again tonight since writing about it got me in the mood. Henri Dacae at his most careful and restrained. Text hided expand
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Owen Stone
Owen Stone 25 March 15 15:42 I love checking out these vintage posters. They show such meticulous attention to detail especially for a time where everything was done by hand and there wasn't a computer there to aid you in keeping lines straight or kerning. Text hided expand
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