Hitler’s nickname for Heydrich was “the man with the iron heart”, and that was an affectionate nickname in Hitler’s twisted mind.
The Man With The Iron Heart, based on the novel HHhH, written by Laurent Binet, which won the Goncourt prize for a first novel in 2012 and was met with unanimous enthusiasm in the 25 countries in which it was translated, was directed by French director, writer and producer Cédric Jimenez (The Connection) and adapted by Jimenez’ partner Audrey Diwan and playwright/ screenwriter David Farr.
Reinhard Heydrich’s (Jason Clarke) meteoric rise to become one of the Nazi regime’s top brass was as furious and unrelenting as the horrors he inflicted on the people of Europe in the years leading up to and during the Second World War. Introduced to the Nazi ideology by his wife, Lina (Rosamund Pike), a high aristocrat who accompanied him throughout his rise to power, Heydrich was the principal architect of the “Final Solution” and an unstoppable force.
However, a small group of Czech Resistance fighters, trained by Britain and directed by the
Czechoslovakian government-in-exile, sought to stop the unstoppable. In an audacious act, the paratroopers,led by Jan Kubiš (Jack O’connell) and Jozef Gabčík (Jack Reynor), attacked Heydrich’s caravan as it travelled the streets of Prague, causing fatal injuries. Reinhard Heydrich became the highest-ranking Nazi officer ever to be killed during World War II.
The very nature of this story rests upon the idea of ‘resistance’ itself and the courage it took for this group of young Czechoslovakians to embark on an impossible mission. Jan and Josef, our heroes of this epic story, were quite aware of the risks and knew that they might have to sacrifice their lives. Nevertheless, they committed to the cause, knowing that this sort of bravery was required to make history. They held the public’s interest above their own, never giving up their ideals.
The pinnacle moments of history are born from extreme characters, both good and evil. Josef and Jan are two patriotic lively men, who refuse to accept barbarism. Their friendship forms the pillar of this story. They fight together side-by-side against all odds. During their mission, they cross paths with two young women with whom they experience, for the last time, the fiery passion of love. This same passion that unites Jan and Anna is exemplary of the vital force that characterizes youth. They are both beautiful and rebellious.
They love each other, yet they are ready to lose everything in the name of a shared cause.
At the other end of this story is the alarming, looming figure of Heydrich. The construct of this narrative separates these two points of view by first allowing us to follow the ascent of Heydrich, a formermilitary officer who joins the Nazi party and ultimately becomes the worst of them. At his side is his wife Lina, a fallen figure of the German aristocracy in search of revenge, who is the reason of this ascension. As the formidable shadow of Heydrich grows and takes shape, danger weighs more and more on the Resistance. It also reinforces the feeling of importance and emergency of this mission: someone has to get completely devoted to the cause of stopping the “Butcher of Prague.”
The unique structure of the script allows one to penetrate deeply into the trajectories of these three main characters. It also adds originality and modernity by playing with the expectations of the historical genre, offering a kaleidoscopic vision to this decisive moment.
The staging is organic and close to the characters, who will serve as the emotional “motors” that propel the story. My ambition was to completely and passionately immerse the viewer so that he feels the same urgency and strength of conviction that the men and women felt at that time. The film is shot on 35mm to give even more life to the image and to better characterize the era in which the story takes place.
I wanted 35 to get this organic texture. For a period movie, it didn’t feel right to shoot digitally.
The Man With The Iron Heart is a true European film. The actors are English, Irish, French and Hungarian, as is the production crew. Each brings a specific and diverse expertise with the ambition of creating a different kind of film.
From Page To Screen
While he was shooting his previous film, The Connection, Cédric Jimenez read Laurent Binet’s book, HHhH, and immediately fell in love with it. Its title an acronym for “Himmler’s Hirn heißt Heydrich,” which translates to “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich,” referring to a quip about Heydrich that circulated in Germany at the time. Heydrich had been the chief architect of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” to rid Europe of Jews.
Jimenez read the book for pleasure, and had no intention of making it into a feature film. The book had been a bestseller, culminating in a New York Times award for Notable Book of the Year, and he assumed the rights to it had been snapped up long ago.
He was correct, but the rights had in fact been bought by Alain Goldman, the president of Legende who happened to be the producer of Jimenez’s The Connection. “We were in Toronto for the premiere of The Connection,” remembers Jimenez, “and Alain said to me, ‘I have the rights to this book, and I already have the script. Do you want to read it?’ Of course I said, ‘I’d love to read the script.’”
The draft had been written by David Farr, best known for his work on Hanna and The Night Manager, and Jimenez responded immediately to it.
David Farr is a playwright, screenwriter and director, whose plays have been performed all over the world. He has worked on the long running BBC show Spooks and completed his first feature film, Hanna, for Focus Features in 2009. His directorial debut, The Ones Below, premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in 2015. David’s adaptation of John le Carré’s novel The Night Manager, aired on BBC1 Autumn 2015 and has been nominated for 12 Emmys including Best Writing. His new series Troy: Fall of a City has been commissioned by BBC1 and he is currently working in the writer’s room for McMafia, produced by Cuba Pictures and adapted from Misha Glenny’s book about organized crime.
He asked Goldman if he could redraft it, with Audrey Diwan, with whom he had co-written The Connection.
Audrey Diwan started her writing career as a novelist. After studying journalism and political sciences, she published two critically acclaimed books, The Fabrication of a Lie (La fabrication d’un mensonge) and The Other Side of Summer (De l’autre côté de l’été) (Flammarion publishing). She then worked in television, notably collaborating on Eric Rochant’s series Mafiosa. Afterwards she began her screenwriter career, collaborating with her partner Cédric Jimenez, whose films she writes. She also created the French version of the publication Stylist and published How to be Parisian, in 32 languages.
“What I loved about the story was the historical significance of the rising of a big, high-ranking Nazi officer, and what it means in this century,” says Jimenez. “How could that happen? How could something so crazy and insane happen? How could people go so wrong in terms of ideology and belief? We think of The Second World War as a nightmare, but it was a true nightmare. And everybody wants to answer these questions, but nobody can.”
The power of the book lies in its splitting of the story between the rise of Heydrich and the background of the group of Czech Resistance fighters who brought about his end. “At the heart of this story is the thematic of the sacrifice that these fighters had to make,” notes Jimenez. “I think it’s a very impressive sacrifice, because it’s so hard to make. Everyone respects that, but not everybody can say to themselves, ‘OK, I think my life is less important than the lives of others.’”
Jimenez continues: “These two sides of the story are really important to me, because they’re about evolving in a really bad way, and evolving in a really good way. And it’s about changing the world. The Nazis wanted to change the world in their own image, while the resistance wanted to change the world and restore order.”
The story of Reinhard Heydrich has been told before, as many stories about the Second World War have, but his name is not familiar to most. Jimenez believes that it’s because he was killed in 1942, while the likes of Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels survived until the end of the war.
However, Heydrich’s assassination was a turning point allowing the destabilization of the Nazi regimen. Hitler’s nickname for Heydrich was “the man with the iron heart”, and that was an affectionate nickname in Hitler’s twisted mind.
Also known as “the butcher of Prague,” Heydrich was responsible for some of the most abhorrent atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, and he was instrumental in organizing Kristallnacht, a series of coordinated attacks on German Jews that presaged the Holocaust. He was directly responsible for the Einsatzgruppen, a special task force that travelled in the wake of German armies and murdered more than 2 million people.
The Nazi response to Heydrich’s assassination was brutal: the towns of Lidice and Ležáky were targeted based on weak evidence that they harbored key resistance figures. Both towns were razed to the ground, their inhabitants killed or sent to concentration camps.
Stepping into the shoes of The Man With The Iron Heart
“He was the epitome of Nazism,” notes Jason Clarke, the actor in charge of playing Heydrich. “He was the epitome of what Hitler and his band of brothers were trying to achieve. He was the architect of a lot of it.”
Heydrich joined the Nazi party only after being fired from the German army in the days before the Nazis took power. But Heydrich was a through-and-through soldier, and so his ousting from the army was, Jimenez believes, the key act in the creation of a monster. “He was pulled away from something that was a part of him, and he found in the Nazi movement another outlet for his anger. He wasn’t supposed to be what he became. Maybe, if he’d stayed a soldier, if he hadn’t been fired from the army, this guy would never have become what he became. Imagine how many people would never have been killed if it weren’t for him. One little event in one person’s life can change the world.”
Jimenez saw in Jason Clarke the only actor with the power and presence to be able to embody Heydrich. “The most important thing was how intelligent and well-read you have to be to accept that you’re playing a really bad man. I didn’t want to forgive or forget the atrocities Heydrich committed. This isn’t a humanization of the man. But I wanted to go a little deeper into what we know about this man in order to try to understand him.”
For his part, it was important for Clarke to note Heydrich’s interests apart from Nazism, and how his power and poise helped him exert control.
Clarke had responded to the material immediately. “He said he didn’t want to save him at all, but he wanted to dig into every single weakness of the character to make it as complex as possible. He didn’t want us to forget that this was a man. He wasn’t a Marvel villain: he was a man that existed, with parents and siblings and a real, human heart beating in his chest. You could walk past the same guy in the street tomorrow and not even know it.”
“You have to see a three-dimensional character for starters,” Clarke says, about the challenge of playing a character who is no more than a monster on paper. “Reinhard Heydrich was a serious man who committed some of the most heinous acts in human history. So there has to be a point to him doing it. There has to be some reason to lay down the track.”
Clarke dove into research. “I love the research. I love reading all about it, whether it comes into how you play the role or not. There comes a point where you have to let it go, when you’re on set trying to establish a feeling of intimidation and constant aggression. I was not a very nice man to be around on this set. Not that I was unfriendly, but you couldn’t just find this feeling in the scene. It’s a fine line when you’re on set, of getting yourself in that mode and trying to keep it to yourself and then letting it out. I was very aware of walking around in a Nazi uniform.”
Jimenez agrees: “It’s brave to accept a character like that, because you accept to be someone that you hate. It’s very hard for an actor to be the one everybody will hate.”
The Woman Behind The Monster
Key to the The Man With The Iron Heart retelling of Heydrich’s story is the influence his wife, Lina, had on her husband. “He wasn’t a big anti-Semite,” Jimenez notes. “He believed only that Germany should be a great country again. Lina opened the road for him to become this monster. She believed in the Nazi party, and she studied politics.”
Pike’s interest in the film came from the strength of character she found in Lina. “People have heard about the project and asked me, ‘Did she know what was going on? Was she just the woman at home, not really understanding what was happening as her husband made his rise through the Nazi party?’ But the interesting thing for me about her is that she’s the architect of his ascent. Reinhard Heydrich would never have become who he became without Lina Von Osten, and her own grandiosity, and her own appetite for power.”
Pike continues: “She’s someone who would have wanted to be powerful herself, but as a woman at that time that wasn’t really possible. In a way, you had to live vicariously through your man. I think she seized this man, and saw something in him that was kind of available for manipulation. She took him and made him, in a way, her puppet.”
“She creates the monster. And when you create a monster, the monster will bite you,because that’s what it does. She gets what she wanted, and for me Lina represents the mistake of peoplewho saw the Nazi system as a solution.”
The people who challenged the power
On the other side of the Heydrich story, Jimenez understood the importance of the differences between the Czech resistance fighters and Heydrich and Lina. These were not men and women of power and education, but simple, everyday people who sought to challenge that power because they believed it needed to be challenged.
“These soldiers were young; very, very young,” notes Jimenez. “Sometimes they were 16 or 17 years old, and they gave their lives to this cause because they didn’t fully understand the consequences. They knew that something was wrong, they felt it needed to change, and they were unaware about the risks they were taking.”
In the role of Jozef Gabčík, Jack Reynor immediately responded to the script when he first read it.
And like O’Connell, he relied on instinct to play the part. “There isn’t a huge amount of material available about Jan and Jozef,” Reynor explains. “Ultimately you have to inject as much of the spirit of what they were trying to do into the character as possible. To put as much of the humanity in us as possible into the character and let that be the driving force, more than to find out what they used to eat for breakfast in the 1920s.”