Returning to the era of World War II Germany, Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel brings us the true story of a ordinary German citizen who did something few did; he fought back. Written by the father-daughter team of Fred Breinersdorfer and Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer, 13 Minutes tells the tale of Georg Elser (Christian Friedel), a man who has a gift for building and crafting things. As the film opens, we see him installing a bomb on a timer in a meeting hall in Munich, circa 1939, a place he knows Adolf Hitler will be speaking shortly, and it’s difficult not to consider what the world would have been like if Hitler hadn’t ended his speech 13 minutes earlier than expected.
It doesn’t take long for the Nazi investigators to figure out who was responsible for the incident, and soon Elser is arrested and interrogated by Criminal Police head Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner), as well as the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow), both of whom are using different methods to figure out who else conspired with Elser to commit this act—a propaganda fiction that has already been sold to the outside world, since he worked alone so as not to endanger others in case he was caught. He is tortured horribly, even after those in charge believe he is telling the truth, at Hitler’s request.
During the course of the investigation, we learn in flashbacks Elser’s history and what he witnessed and experienced that make him want to resist in such a resounding manner. He could have lived out the war in relative comfort and ease, but he was disgusted with what he was seeing and the gross discrimination going on around Germany. Much of what he saw was going on in the background of his previous life as a musician, which included an affair with a lovely woman, Elsa (Katharina Schuttler), who just happened to be married to an absolute brute (Rudiger Klink) who was more than happy to join the Nazi party as it rose in their small town. There’s also the issue of Elser’s own family, led by a drunkard father who almost loses the family farm. This backstory seems more than a little unnecessary and extraneous to 13 Minutes, and it’s far less compelling than seeing the beginning of the path Elser takes toward planning his assassination attempt and tirelessly experimenting to get the timing right.
13 Minutes has a distinct case of peaks and valleys in terms of holding my interest, but there were enough unique and interesting touches to give it a mild recommendation. I like the almost wordless interplay between Elser and a stenographer/secretary who is in the room during all of his interrogations. She clearly thinks that the way he is being treated is wrong, and in the tiniest ways possible, she attempts to ease his suffering, if not actually help him out of his situation. Small moments such as that help give the movie enough character to make it a curious footnote story that has never been told. The filmmakers at least don’t attempt to change the ending of Elser’s story, giving the film a bitter but understandable conclusion.
13 Minutes is a well-intentioned work that wants to show that not all Germans were on board with Hitler’s politics or policies. Some may not be interested in painting any Germans in such a light during this moment in history, but I’m glad this film exists, if only as an addendum to better known tales of the period.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.