The Man with the Iron Heart is a biographical war drama thriller directed by Cedric Jimenez and starring Jason Clarke, Rosamund Pike, Jack Reynor, Jack O’Connell and Mia Wasikowska. Reinhard Heydrich has been the subject of many novels and now ten films centring on Operation Anthropoid in the 1940s. This was a critical event in World War II history as the high-ranking Nazi official and main architect of the Holocaust had become an assassination target. Directly responsible for Einsatzgruppen, a group known from mass shooting and gassing 2 million people, he is regarded as one of the darkest figures in the Third Reich and world history. It was Hitler who described him as ‘The Man with the Iron Heart’, adding to his growing list of nicknames: the Butcher of Prague, the Blonde Beast and the Hangman.
An evil and twisted character, you can understand why there has been so much interest and detail around the operation, attempted assassination and his death. Heydrich grew up to a fairly strict family and was quite shy and insecure, bullied at school for his high voice and Jewish ancestry. Serving in the Navy and known as a womaniser, it took some years before he was in a position to adopt SS duties, where he achieved considerable power and influence. His network of spies enabled him to leverage this power to further his political aims using blackmail.
The Man with the Iron Heart is biographical in the way that his life story unfolds as a young man, moving from his disgrace in the Navy through his World War II exploits and to his eventual death. Special focus is given to his relationship with his wife Lina, a woman who was influential in his rise to power. Starting with the assassination attempt we’re transplanted back in time to his origins, eventually getting to the point where the film switches over to the perspective of the assassins.
It’s almost as though two films have been glued together with the central meeting point serving as bookends and a divider, as we discover Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik, the two men central to Operation Anthropoid and how they came to be involved. There’s plenty of detail around this infamous operation. The immediate impact of Heydrich’s death led to extensive investigations and horrific revenge killings through Czechoslovakia in his wake.
Director Cedric Jimenez has crafted an authentic and beautifully composed war drama thriller. The experience is quite immersive, using every corner of the frame to get as much production value out of the experience as possible. One brilliant single shot scene, travelling in a sidecar gives you a first person perspective of what it must have been like for German troops to move through a small Czechoslovakian village. Another shows scores of Germans celebrating the infamous Nazi Party insignia as part of a parade. The authenticity of the visuals is carried into the execution killings and graphic nature of Heydrich’s reign of terror. The Man with the Iron Heart is a bloody film, which doesn’t shy away from violence, in its efforts to portray just how cold, clinical and ruthless Heydrich was in his command.
“Your nightmare is my dream…”
While Jason Clarke isn’t a spitting image of Reinhard Heydrich, he delivers a captivating and passionate performance trying to mine the depths of evil without losing every shred of humanity in his performance. Arrogant, ambitious and hardheaded, he comes across like a man of great anger whose self taught restraint is managed by allowing his evil to manifest in his duties and megalomania. Rosamund Pike is well suited to the role of Lina, bringing a softer malevolence to the picture as her political beliefs inadvertently steer the rage into darker territory and ultimately focused systematic killing.
Much like The Place Beyond the Pines, The Man with the Iron Heart is made up of two chapters, the second of which features the story of Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik played by Jack Reynor and Jack O’Connell respectively. Their recruitment, special instructions and undercover journey to Prague play out as we get to know the characters better. Jimenez maintains the visual austere of the World War II drama as the two men rally alongside their fellow resistance fighters in preparation. While there isn’t much detail in terms of the operation’s plotting, ignoring previous plans completely, this chapter has got more to do with their brotherhood. O’Connell was strong in Unbroken and is easy to mistake for Anton Yelchin in this film. The two up-and-coming actors grapple with their accents yet carry the drama along quite convincingly.
While The Man with the Iron Heart is a compelling piece of cinema in terms of its execution, the narrative does come across as somewhat muddled. The solid ensemble pull together to deliver a great team effort, but it just feels as if the screenplay could have gone deeper into the mind of the monster. Watching from an arm’s length, one is transported and able to appreciate the artistry at play, from the authentic and vivid visuals to the soaring soundtrack.
Unfortunately, Jimenez doesn’t give us the opportunity to truly invest in the characters. While sprawling and epic, the cold and calculated Reinhard Heydrich becomes mascot to a film with a similar appetite and traits. The extreme violence is harrowing and disturbing, counterbalanced by the fascinating true story in all its evil pageantry. The end result is a film which is admirable, compelling, detestable and immersive, yet distant and unable to land an emotional punch, despite managing to wind us with cutthroat apathy.
Perhaps The Man with the Iron Heart would have been better served as a full-blown character portrait without venturing into the terrain of the two assassins. Jason Clarke would have been able to have a had more exposition to work with, culminating in the assassination attempt. Or perhaps The Man with the Iron Heart would have been better suited to focusing on the journey of the heroes with glimpses into the true evil that was Reinhard Heydrich in the context of the Third Reich. In some ways Jimenez has his hands tied, with a screenplay based on HHhH, making a clear blueprint for the format of the adaptation.
The bottom line: Handsome