Movie Review: The Butcher of Prague Gets His Due in ‘The Man with the Iron Heart’ (aka ‘HHhH’)
The assassination of Nazi Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich has become one of the most oft-told WWII incidents to hit the screen, with two 1940s Hollywood dramas (Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die and Douglas Sirk’s Hitler’s Madman), a memorable 1964 Czech production (Atentát), 1975’s international co-production Operation Daybreak, and a pair of new mainstream thrillers released around the 75th anniversary of the actual event.
Atentát and Daybreak set the standard for the procedural-style rundown of the assassination, and it’s one that both last year’s Anthropoid and and now The Man with the Iron Heart (also known as HHhH in some markets) follow.
But unlike previous takes on the assassination, Iron Heart widens the scope to chart the life of the man at its core: Reinhard Heydrich, a disgraced military officer who was urged by his wife to join the fledgling SS and rose through its ranks to become the architect of the Final Solution, one of Hitler’s highest-ranking officials, and a Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia so ruthless he earned the nickname ‘The Butcher of Prague’.
Unfortunately, that all amounts to 40 minutes of montage-level material in Iron Heart as director Cédric Jimenez runs down key events in Heydrich’s rise in such rat-a-tat fashion that there’s never enough time to go into significant detail, or a driving story thread to latch onto, or even much context to get the big picture.
Heydrich’s court-martial and dismissal from the Navy, his marriage and the birth of his children, his relationship with Himmler (played by Stephen Graham in a standout supporting role) and rise through the SS, Gestapo purges and executions of political enemies, communists, and Jews, and the Wannsee Conference and presentation of the Final Solution, all fly by without much continuity from scene to scene.
The film asks a lot of the viewer, and those unfamiliar with the key WWII events (briefly) detailed during its first half will struggle to keep up with what’s going on.
Unlike Laurence Binet’s novel HHhH, which the film is based upon, Iron Heart seems skittish to get too far inside the central character for fear of humanizing him. But this has the opposite effect, and as it distances itself from Heydrich, his inhumanity is only blurred.
Still, Jason Clarke and (particularly) Rosamund Pike create some strong characterizations as Heydrich and his wife. Clarke looks nothing like the Reichsprotektor (German actor Detlef Bothe, who played Heydrich in both Anthropoid and 2011’s Lidice, was a dead ringer), but his psychopathic brute is an intimidating presence throughout.
Pike, meanwhile, gets more of a character arc as Lina Heydrich, a character rarely seen in film. She is the initial force behind Heydrich’s career with the SS, but eventually looks on in horror at the monster she has created.
If there’s one big failing here, it’s how the film drops Lina as soon as her husband dies; we know what happens to the rest of these characters, but I was most interested in the wife. She went on to live forty more controversial years in Germany, receiving a substantial pension due to her husband’s ranking in the military, and defended him until her death in 1985. But despite being one of Iron Heart’s main characters, her fate doesn’t even merit an end title scrawl.
In any event, the presentation of Heydrich here feels somewhat weak; while confined entirely to the Wannsee Conference, Kenneth Branagh offers a far more chilling portrayal of the man in 2001’s underrated Conspiracy.
But Heydrich’s story is just the first half of this movie, and when it shifts the focus to the Czech resistance fighters, Iron Heart really kicks into gear. Yes, we’ve seen this all before, and the events described in Atentát, Daybreak, Anthropoid, and now this film are all remarkably similar. And if Anthropoid is still fresh in your mind, you’ll get a particularly heavy dose of déjà vu.
But despite rather limited screentime, Jack O’Connell and Jack Reynor are excellent here as Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, and share a real sense of camaraderie; the relationship between the two assassins is the highlight of the film, and the final sequence of them together is particularly affecting.
And while director Jimenez struggled to make something out of the Heyrich material, his work with the assassins is exceptional: tense and exciting throughout, with a masterful handling of the actual assassination sequence that might rank as the best ever put to film.
There are some noteworthy distortions from fact here that Binet carefully denotes in his novel, though film viewers are left without that information. Perhaps most notable is the fate of Kubiš and Gabčík, who perish together in the flooded crypt rather than in separate locations of the church.
One deviation bothered me: Ata Moravec, the 17-year-old son of the family that harbored the resistance fighters and was tortured into giving up their location, is here played by an actor who looks 8 or 9, and the brutal torture scenes feel exploitative.
And while Atentát, Daybreak, and Anthropoid were all shot on location in Prague, Iron Heart substitutes Budapest for the Czech capital (though some exteriors have been shot on location). This won’t matter for most viewers, but locals might be thrown (you can even spot the occasional Hungarian text on screen) and I can’t help feel the film comes off as less authentic because of it.
A flat portrayal of Heydrich but an exciting account of his assassination, The Man with the Iron Heart is a mixed bag, and a weaker film than previous versions of this story. Still, it's extremely interesting and certainly worth catching if you’re a history buff or somehow managed to miss the earlier films.
Title note: while originally called HHhH, and possibly still running under that title in some areas, the onscreen title here is The Man with the Iron Heart; confusingly, that’s also the title of a fictional novel in which Heydrich survives the assassination and goes on to replace Hitler. Coincidentally, Heydrich assumes a similar role in the TV series The Man in the High Castle.