As part of an exhibition linked to the 70th anniversary of the Lidice massacre in June, Prague's Dox Centre for Contemporary Art is currently hosting a video installation by the London-based Czech documentary maker and editor Jan Kaplan entitled 10:35. The name refers to the time of day that the operation to assassinate the Nazi governor of Bohemia and Moravia – which preceded the Lidice atrocity – reached its climax in a Prague suburb on May 27, 1942. The UK-based Czechoslovak paratroopers who carried out the attack later met their deaths in a church in the city.
10:35 is based on material from SS-3: The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a documentary that Jan Kaplan made in the early 1990s. We spoke about that film – and questions linked to Operation Anthropoid – at a Prague cafe recently. But I began by asking its maker when he had first gone to England, the country that has been his home for over four decades.
“I went to England for the first time in 1967. I liked the English language and things connected with England. At that point London was the centre of the universe, with the Beatles and everything.”
Had you decided to stay there before the invasion in 1968?
“Well, it was decided for me, because the Russians came here and I thought it was maybe not a good idea to come back. At the time I worked at the Czechoslovak Television studios on Vladislavova St., in the news and current affairs department. I was actually going to go to FAMU, the film school, that autumn. I had a guaranteed course in film editing, which is what I did.
“But then I thought maybe they would draft me to the army. I was at that kind of age when I probably would have been in the army. I wasn’t optimistic enough to think I’d end up in the film unit. I wasn’t rebellious, but I told people what I thought. They would probably have beaten me to a pulp, so I thought it was better to stay in London.”
And you studied film making in London. What kind of films were you making in the earlier part of your career in the UK?
“Very interesting films. I got involved in a number of very interesting productions – films that I would never have dreamed of doing here. Although here I did some interesting films during the Prague Spring, on subjects like Franz Kafka, because that was very popular, for German TV, featuring Eduard Goldstücker, the number one Kafka expert of his day.
“Then I met him almost instantly in London, because he went there as well. On the day of the Russian invasion we happened to meet in the studio and he remembered me, because it had been so recent. He stayed as well – he taught at Sussex University, in the German literature department.
“I went on to work in the cutting rooms. I did anything to do with television production: documentaries, sports programmes, which I wasn’t that keen on, a film about William Blake that won an award in Tokyo soon afterwards. And so on.”
In the early 1990s you made a film about the film about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. What was it that attracted you to that subject?
“I wanted to see the son of a bitch die all over again! No, my wife Krystyna and I decided that... it was the 50th anniversary and originally we didn’t even think that the film would be shown in the Czech Republic, purely because it’s such a controversial subject.
“Someone told us that this would be a very good thing to show in England, because at that point not many people knew about the assassination. In fact, I initiated the first ever exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London on this subject [Prague in the Shadow of the Swastika].
“Only a few people were interested in the SOE [Special Operations Executive] and all that... the average person in England did not know who Heydrich was. They were more interested in Hitler and Goebbels and Himmler, somebody recognisable, but Heydrich sounded very remote...”
But isn’t the assassination of Heydrich one of the most exciting stories of World War II?
“Tell them. But they know now. That programme was shown twice on the BBC and many, many times on Channel 5, which was at the time nicknamed the Hitler channel, because they were showing only war films, the History Channel, all over the world.”
When you made the film did you have a great sense of responsibility, considering how important the story is to this country?
“Of course, we’re certainly not going to treat it lightly. We knew this was no Monty Python, it was absolutely serious, there were so many human lives lost.
“It became... I didn’t know it was going to have such an impact. We’re talking about millions and millions and millions of people around the world who we are told have seen it.
“The most surprising reaction I ever got to it was from the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who I spoke to on the occasion of the launch of her autobiography. She was about 96, 97 at the time. She said she saw it many times. She recorded it off the television and apparently watched it. She was very complementary and said it was very well made. But she emphasised that she did not like Heydrich as a person.”
You obviously are an expert on the subject, you’ve studied it backwards, you know it extremely well. Do you think Operation Anthropoid was the right thing to do? [The resistance in Prague had called on exiled President Edvard Beneš not to carry it out, for fear of bloody reprisals that did in fact occur.]
“I can’t answer your question about what I think morally. I’ve been asked that many times and it’s not really up to me, or up to Krystyna and I, to pass a moral judgement. We are documentarians, not historians.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of controversy about whether it was worth it. I can tell you one thing. Operation Anthropoid has been more and more appreciated as time goes by, from the purely historical point of view, although at the time the Brits were very reluctant to support it, for various reasons.
“They thought it was President Beneš’s act of political strategy to attract the sympathy of the British government and so on...”
But that was the case, no?
“It was... initially absolutely. But the Brits said, and this is where history kind of takes its own course, the Brits said, well, it’s purely your thing, we will help you as much as we can and we’ll train your men, and we’ll supply the transportation, the plane and so on. But we don’t want to be part of this thing, because there’s going to be terrible...they told him, although he must have known, that the reaction will be bloody. Horrible.
“But looking at it with the benefit of hindsight, Heydrich was probably one of the most dangerous Nazis who ever lived. He was due to fly to France. In France he would probably have very quickly taken on the Resistance and totally destroyed it, because he was an ‘expert’. And it could have affected the further development of the war, in terms of D-Day.
“Maybe D-Day wouldn’t have happened the way it did if Heydrich had been there in France, with his ability. And he was an evil genius. He knew to how to harm the enemies of the Reich, as the head of the Gestapo and so on.
“So France may not actually have been the launch pad for the Allied invasion of Europe, for example. From that point of view, purely militarily, and it was a military operation in the end – these were soldiers, the two men or three [Czechoslovak] men, whatever the interpretation is, and Heydrich was a general of the SS, so it was like soldiers against an officer...
“One other thing was that the Munich Treaty was declared invalid. And President Beneš became a recognised head of state, which he had had a lot of problems with in Britain, because they said, you’ve got a president, he’s called Hácha. As you know, he [Beneš] resigned in 1938, after the Munich Conference.”
Was it the case that that kind of operation was unusual at that time?
“Yes, it was. The commando type of warfare was considered ungentlemanly by the British, believe it or not. We British don’t fight like that – it’s dirty war. Well, show me a clean war. Commando war wasn’t established the way it is now. Now it’s all virtually commando, fighting behind enemy lines and killing people and carrying out assassinations.
“It wasn’t popular, no. In fact some people in the British Parliament condemned it at the time. It wasn’t...I think they were surprised, surprised they pulled it off. Let’s face it, a lot of it was kind of amateurish. The fact they [the parachutists] were doing the opposite of what they should have done...
“They should have totally separated. Also they shouldn’t have visited any friends or their families, which they did. That brought about a lot of unnecessary deaths – breaking the basic rules of conspiracy. We can’t just blame it on the operation itself, but the way some of the men behaved, seeing their families, sharing accommodation with other people. It was asking for trouble and it did happen.”
The video installation 10:35 is being shown at Dox Centre for Contemporary Art, as part of the exhibition, The Silent Village until 9.4.2012.