Near-Miss: Oliver Hirschbiegel's '13 Minutes' reveals little-known plot against Hitler

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In November 1939, a small-town carpenter from the south of Germany nearly changed the course of world history. Revolted by what Hitler and his thugs were planning for Germany, Georg Elser, acting alone, embarked on a plan to assassinate the entire top Nazi leadership by blowing up the beer hall where they would be holding their annual meeting. He built a near-perfect bomb, installed it without being detected, and escaped almost to the Swiss border, where he discovered that his plan had failed only because Hitler and his gang had unexpectedly left 13 minutes before the bomb was set to go off. Oliver Hirschbiegel directed this riveting biopic about the life and death of this unsung hero.

Director Talk: As a young man growing up in West Germany, what did you know of Elser’s story, and how did it differ from what you ultimately came to know and feel about him?

Oliver HirschbiegelI happened to do quite a bit of my own research about the history of my people, especially in regard to the Third Reich, so I stumbled over George Elser when I was about thirteen or fourteen. At that time he was regarded as a weirdo, somebody who had a weird vision: He was considered a bit of a psychopath. Then I saw the bomb, and the bomb was fascinating. It was a nearly perfectly planned-out construction of a really effective instrument, so I wasn’t really able to put one and one together and end up with a weirdo.

Then I forgot about this guy. Only when I was doing research for Downfall did I stumble over his name again and thought: Wow, that’s an interesting story—one should really look into that. As a matter of fact, while I was editing Downfall I was approached by the writers of 13 Minutes, who asked if I would be interested in doing a film about Elser. At the time, it was tough to deal with the Third Reich; I didn’t want to go back there. But it took another couple of years until they had the final draft, and because I know them and respect them, I finally agreed to just read it. I still didn’t feel like I wanted to go there, but then I was surprised, because I liked their approach, I liked the idea of really going back into my own history, into the early days of this horrific system, and that’s how I got into Elser.

DT: According to Fred Breinersdorfer, one of the co-writers, 13 Minutes is a subversion of the heimat film. First, can you talk about the tradition of the heimat film, and then how your film subverts it?

OH: The heimat film was generated during the Third Reich and continued throughout the ’50s into the ’60s. It romanticizes German traditions, the beauty of living in the countryside, living in the mountains, which does have a lot of beauty, a lot of poetry. It’s the root of much of what our culture is based on—the music, the thinkers, the philosophers—but of course it was a very clichéd image. I was always fascinated with it as a genre.

One of the values of being from the countryside was Gemutlichkeit [friendliness, good cheer]. One of the crimes of the Nazi system was using that as an ideal; now the typical German country life will forever be tainted with the brown color of the Nazi ideology. So even more so, I set out to portray life in those days in the countryside, in the provinces. I tried to do it in a loving way and not in a clichéd way, because what you see in the beginning [of the film] is actually what the Nazis destroyed.

DT: Did heimat films start out being propaganda films or nostalgia films?

OH: Both, actually—they used it for propaganda reasons and of course they used it in nostalgic, romantic comedies, things set in the mountains or the countryside of Bavaria.

DT: I was fascinated to learn that Elser’s living relatives were ashamed of being related to him.

OH: Part of the family refused to be in touch with us. Right after Georg’s failed assassination, the people of [Georg’s hometown] Königsbronn—the family to start with—had to suffer greatly. The men all got drafted into the army and were forced into the worst war theatres, ending up in Russia fighting at Stalingrad. Georg was regarded as a traitor. It’s a German thing, you know, the concept of obedience. As it is in Japanese society, obedience is—or was—one of the cornerstones of German society. As an officer, as a soldier, you had to obey orders, and there was no way to turn against your superiors. So even people like Stauffenberg and his guys [who attempted to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944] were regarded as traitors. Same with Elser.

DT: Elser was from the working class, while Stauffenberg was an aristocrat. Did class difference make a difference in the way they were ultimately regarded?

OH: Yes. Yes. Most definitely. To start with, Stauffenberg and his men and women attempted to take out Hitler at a time when it was obvious that somebody had to do something. Everybody knew about the camps at the time, everybody knew the war would not be won, there was just going to be more and more destruction, and Hitler had to be stopped. Even then, it took twenty-five years or so until they were properly recognized as resistance fighters and found their place in German history. Stauffenberg and his crew, and the Scholls [Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, members of the White Rose resistance group] all came from an elite background. They of course had a much better lobby than a little carpenter without a proper education coming from the provinces in the south of Germany. It took a long, long, long time until Elser was at least recognized with a tiny little museum, but it was actually our film that gave him full recognition and sort of put him where he really belongs in German history.

DT: What are the biggest challenges in directing a biopic?

OH: Giving the audience something new, staying authentic to the character that is portrayed, finding the right dose of what are the facts that you’re giving, what is the information that you’re giving, what are the gaps that you’re leaving for the audience to fill in. Then, of course, it’s a question of how much do we know about this person, how much as a director do you have to invent or reinvent in order to portray this character even if you can’t tell for sure if it had been like that. If there’s nobody to ask, you have to start guessing, you have to do police work and try to put all the information that you have together and then come up with your interpretation. Those aspects of course are in any biopic, because there’s hardly any character, any biography that’s totally covered, but the key target must be to stay true to the character. Don’t bend it. You cannot bend a character in the portrayal just for the sake of making it work in matters of suspense or drama.

DT: How much leeway did you give your cast in interpreting the characters and guiding the film in the directions they wanted it to take?

OH: I told them, especially in the beginning, that I wanted to portray German country life in an authentic way, not romanticizing it. When it came to the characters, I gave them as much information as I had, with a few guidelines. With Christian Friedel, who plays Elser, I told him basic cornerstones of Elser’s character: Imagine this man—he believes in freedom, he doesn’t understand what’s going on, he’s sort of like a hippie in the ’60s. He wants everybody to be free, he wants to travel, he’s curious, he wants to understand the world, he wants to meet other people, he doesn’t understand the concept of borders. He’s a musician as well. And as it is with musicians, he was attractive to the ladies—ladies like a man who can play guitar and sing songs. And Georg was a man who liked to dress better than the others, he was a man of style within the limits of his money, he was a charmer, a bit of a bad boy…so you hand out these little clues, and at the same time I told Christian just to think “pop star”—Georg was a little bit of a pop star. You give these tiny little things to the actors, and they create wonders. How they do it, I don’t know, but I think it worked out.

DT: The performances were fantastic. Let’s talk about authenticity for a bit: How did you seek to achieve it?

OH: Formally, in depicting the country life—the early days of Georg’s biography—I used a lot of handheld camera and rich colors. I used Super 8 footage to re-create the dreams and the visions. I wanted to get across this aspect of joy that was destroyed by the whole Nazi system, which believed in suppression, control, violence. If you look at the film, all the scenes that are set up within the Gestapo, when the system is controlling everything, are static. They’re all shot from the tripod, hardly ever any movement, hardly ever any pans. There’s a certain aspect of claustrophobia there as well, I believe.

DT: You’ve said that you followed Ozu and Kurosawa in directing the interrogation scenes. What did you mean by that?

OH: Ozu especially. If you look at Tokyo Story and other films, Ozu sets up the camera and you just watch, and the people moving about or not moving about define the suspense of a scene or a moment. I used that element to create something else here. Back in the day, traveling shots were by far not as common as they are now: People are used to zoom-ins, travel-ins, side shots and high-angle shots that are moving. So if you use Ozu’s kind of storytelling today, it radiates a new quality. People don’t really notice what they’re watching—only in the subconscious they realize there’s something different in the way it’s told.

DT: With the rise of right-wing movements across Europe and the United States, the film is especially relevant today. When you were shooting, did you direct with an eye to modern social developments, or was that completely irrelevant to you at that point?

OH: That’s dangerous. That line is for the audience to draw. I don’t set out to put my finger on that. Especially if you’re doing an historical film, you have to try to stick to what happened then and depict that, leaving it to the audience to possibly put one and one together. Plus, at the time I was shooting 13 Minutes, that right-wing populist movement basically did not exist in Germany; it’s something that’s developed in the past two and a half years and really became strong last year, so that was not really on the agenda.

It’s kind of shocking to see what’s happening in Turkey right now, to see what’s happening in your country [the USA] as well. To hear what Trump and his people are saying is pretty alarming, but if there is a working democratic system in the world, it’s your country. People forget that. For me, the United States is the exemplary democratic society—the way it’s set up in the Constitution, the way the President acts, the way the Congress acts, the way the judicial system acts, freedom of speech, freedom of press. There is no way that something like what happened in Germany would ever happen in the U.S., I’m absolutely certain of that. As a matter of fact, your country being a true democracy is unfortunately the reason that somebody like Trump was able to get elected. So I’m afraid you will have to ride that car for a while, but my hope is that people are smart enough to realize that is not the way to go. I think it’s a wake-up call. I hope it is. It’s much worse in Turkey. What’s going on there right now is a disaster. They’re really aiming for fascism, it’s just a tiny little step until they kill the whole concept of a parliament. But that will never happen in the United States. No way.

DT: How did 13 Minutes do in Germany?

OH: Good. Of course, as a filmmaker you want it to be a big hit, but these films never become big hits. Downfall was an exception. But 13 Minutes caused so many articles and so much talk that everybody knows who Elser is now. That’s the greatest effect you can create with a film.

13 Minutes opened on June 30 in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Quad Cinema, and in Los Angeles at the Royal Theatre, with national rollout to follow. Click here for theatre listings near you. The author thanks Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2017