Assassination scene in Anthropoid one of best in movies, says historical adviser Zdeněk Špitálník

'Anthropoid', photo: LD Entertainment

Czech viewers will finally get the chance to see Anthropoid at the end of September, when the much-anticipated movie hits cinemas around the country. Exploring the daring operation to assassinate Nazi governor Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942, the film was directed and co-written by Englishman Sean Ellis. However, Anthropoid had considerable Czech input, including from Zdeněk Špitálník of Prague’s Military History Institute, who served as historical adviser on the movie. When we met at his office, I asked the young historian when he had first become interested in Operation Anthropoid.

Zdeněk Špitálník,  photo: Prokop Havel
“This story is relatively well-known in the Czech Republic and I’m not sure when I first got interested in it, but when I was a little boy, I think about 10 years old. I read a book about it by Miroslav Ivanov.

“That’s when my interest in this story started.”

I was reading an interview with you in which you said there is more interest in Operation Anthropoid in the Czech Republic today than there was 15 years ago. Why is that?

“This story was also well-known in the past. But in the last 15 years there were many exhibitions and many projects, which led to more interest in this historical event.”

Is it the case that under communism it wasn’t spoken about so much?

“Yes, that’s true, but there were also many books about this operation. [The parachutists who carried out the assassination] Kubiš and Gabčík were also heroes during the Communist era.

“But the problem was in the broader context. Communist historians said that it was the action of exiled president President Beneš and the result of the assassination was bad because people from two villages were executed, and so on.”

How did you become selected to be historical adviser on the movie Anthropoid?

“I don’t know [laughs]. In my work I did some projects about the paratroopers and about Special Group D, for instance. Also an exhibition of forgotten photographs of the paratroopers and one about Jan Kubiš’s place of birth.

“So that’s why. That’s the reason, I think.”

But you also had experience of working on other historical dramas and documentaries, is that right?

'Anthropoid',  photo: LD Entertainment
“Yes, I have cooperated with Czech Television on many projects. For instance, České století, or now the TV project Bohéma, which is about the occupation and the Barrandov studios.

“Very often movie makers come to our institute and want help.”

How much do they actually listen to you? When you give them advice, do they always take it?

“There is sometimes a problem with money. Because many scenes are impossible to make due to the number of historical items – it’s very expensive to achieve historical accuracy.”

Do you find it frustrating to see the recreation of an historical event that isn’t done correctly?

“I think it’s very difficult to make a historically accurate story. Because every writer and movie maker wants to have a strong story.

“Sometimes they have to make some changes in the story, because filmmakers need to raise money for their movie and it must be attractive to a large number of people.”

Tell us about your cooperation with Sean Ellis. What form did it take?

“I first met Sean Ellis I think more than six months before filming began. My first advice concerned the screenplay.

“There were many, many versions of the screenplay. Every week we had meetings and made some changes to the story.

“I gave some advice to the team on proper period items, and so on.”

What was your impression when you first read the first version of the screenplay?

'Anthropoid',  photo: Bleeker Street Media / James Lisle
“When I first read the screenplay I said, Oh, there are many mistakes [laughs].

“But most of them were corrected and in the last version there are only a few mistakes, which were important for the story and for the movie.”

During the actual shooting of the film last summer here in Prague, did you have much interaction with the actors, with the stars of the movie?

“Yes, I was on the set every day, so I was with the actors every day. I also trained them in special skills.”

What kind of skills?

“For example, working with a parachute. The movie starts in a forest, with parachutes.

“So I taught them how to pack parachutes correctly, how to cover all of the operation equipment.

“We also taught them how to grab weapons correctly. Because they were very different then they are now.”

And you know how to use old weapons?

“Yes [laughs]. I studied everything in period manuals and from instruction films.

“Also a Czechoslovak soldier made an instruction manual for hand-to-hand fighting and that is also something I taught the actors.”

In the movie there’s one scene where they go to the church where the crypt is on Resslova St. My first impression was that they had shot actually in the church, because it looks completely real. But then as the action continues it becomes clear that it’s not the actual place. What was your impression when you were on the set and saw that recreation of the church?

'Anthropoid',  photo: Bleeker Street Media / James Lisle
“When I saw the fake church, I was very impressed. It looked absolutely brilliant.”

Were you at the shooting of the assassination scene? If so, how did that feel?

“It was very interesting. But when this scene was being made there were many attempts, so the whole impression was in pieces.

“But it looks brilliant, especially the bombs and the effects. For example, on the tram. This scene in the final movie looks absolutely shocking.

“It’s one of the best assassination scenes in movies.”

Where did they film that particular scene?

“It was shot in front of the Villa Bílek, near Hradčanská Metro station.

“It wasn’t the correct place, but this place looks very similar to the original assassination spot.”

And is it the case that the original scene of the assassination is no longer there?

“Yes, that street looks very different now. Because there are many new roads there.”

Did the fact that Sean Ellis was not Czech bring anything different to the movie than if it had been made by a Czech?

“I think it’s very interesting that a foreigner has made a film about our history. Many people here have a problem with our heroes – they treat them like saints.

“A foreigner could have a very interesting perspective.”

In the film Jozef Gabčík is presented as being a tough guy, whereas Jan Kubiš is more sensitive. Is that based on reality?

'Anthropoid',  photo: Bleeker Street Media / James Lisle
“I think that in the movie there is a bigger contrast than there was in reality.

“Jozef Gabčík was a tough guy, but Jan Kubiš was also a very skilled soldier.

“Yes, Kubiš could be more sensitive than Gabčík, but we know that Gabčík was also very smiley.

“In the movie he is very strict. But I think it doesn’t matter.”

Generally, what is your impression of the film?

“I have seen it three times and I think it looks fantastic.”

What does it mean for the story that the film is now coming out around the world?

“The story of Operation Anthropoid is very strong and I think it’s good to bring it to other countries.

“Because it’s not as well known in many places as it is in the Czech Republic.

“And I think it’s very good promotion of the Czech Republic and of Czech heroism.”