Film Review: 13 Minutes

Superb performances, authentic settings and effective story structure all heighten involvement in this handsome dramatization of the man behind the true-life but lesser-known pre-war 1939 bomb plot to kill Hitler.
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Director Oliver Hirschbiegel is perhaps best known to art-house audiences for his 2004 critically acclaimed hit Downfall, a major production about Hitler's final bunker days in besieged Berlin. He followed that powerhouse of a historical drama with mostly TV work and star-studded English-language features before returning to 13 Minutes, but both of his Nazi-themed fact-based films attest to Hirschbiegel being not just a master storyteller but a stickler for detail even in large-scale productions.

From the get-go, 13 Minutes engages and should attract even beyond the many film fans of this period. But from the get-go, the film might also have benefitted from a title or prologue establishing that the story to follow is a true one, although maybe this is a redundancy in our age of massive buzz and social media.

Again, Hirschbiegel displays cinematic expertise at getting very up close and personal to dark but important material. The story begins with intense nighttime close-ups of a sweaty, struggling, determined Georg Elser (Christian Friedel), only in his mid-30s, maneuvering nervously to install and hide a bomb, a cumbersome contraption timed to detonate soon after in the Munich beer hall on November 8, 1939, where Hitler (a convincing Udo Schenk, briefly seen and heard at the podium in long shot) commemorates the 15th anniversary of his failed and famous 1923 Munich putsch power-grab.

The bomb explodes on time but, unbeknownst to Elser who flees to Lake Constance on the German-Swiss border, Hitler escapes assassination by unexpectedly departing 13 minutes early (hence, the film’s title)—but the bombing ultimately did cost eight lives. News of the attempt on the Führer’s life spreads throughout Germany, where the authorities are on high alert for suspicious characters.

Elser is detained, as authorities are first suspicious because of the Red Front pin he wears on his jacket. (Elser is no Communist Party member but is a working-class sympathizer.) With suspicions heightened, he is jailed, then placed in the hands of two high-ranking Nazi inquisitors in Berlin. The older and more calculating of the pair is head of criminal police Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner); call him the thinking-man’s Nazi. Younger and more sadistic is Gestapo head Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow).

Together, they soon know they have their man (Elser’s bruised knees from the grueling business of installing the bomb provide unassailable evidence), but Elser resists betraying any information, even his name. The Nazis go to work on him (brief but unpleasant torture sessions are depicted) and much transpires via flashbacks that provide backstory and context. Those scenes focus on both Elser as a poor but gifted country rube and on the rise of Nazism in his small Swabian village.

Elser is a free-thinker who detests violence and loves music (he’s adept at several instruments) and the ladies. As a likeable misfit, he emerges as counterpoint to the ugly signs of Nazism overtaking the once peaceful village. With an alcoholic father and peasant mother who are losing their home, he is no more than a laborer toiling in a smelting factory and as a carpenter. But such work brings him skills he’ll later apply.

Already with one illegitimate child to his credit, he carries on a secret affair with Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), a married neighbor whose abusive, violent husband Erich (Rüdiger Klink) is an enduring threat. Elser comes alive, as does his pre-war village of the ’30s, a microcosm where Nazi power and its embrace by the populace inexorably grow. Local events include film showings and fairs that are kitschy celebrations of an Aryan Germany the Nazis value. Nazi posters, books and pamphlets grow more abundant, as does the bullying by Nazi party members and sympathizers. A local woman, Lore (Gertl Drassl), is tied up for display in the village square because she has a Jewish boyfriend. The local authorities, led by tavern worker turned Nazi Hans Eberle (Felix Eitner), commit Elser’s best pal Josef Schurr (David Zimmerschied), a devoted Communist activist, to forced labor. This event is the camel’s straw for Elser.

What remains obscured (because Elser won’t talk) and especially vexes the Nazi interrogators (and eventually Hitler himself) is whether he could possibly have acted alone in so intricate a plot and, if not, who were his accomplices? One especially memorable sequence comprises a trippy montage as the Nazis resort to injecting their defiant captor with truth drugs. These teasing, unanswered questions also drive the considerable suspense that builds throughout. The finale’s twists (one is especially inspiring and ironic and involves the better-known 1944 von Stauffenberg plot to murder Hitler) provide considerable emotional punch.

Additionally, Hirschbiegel, defying the odds in portraying Nazis and their era realistically, delivers convincing red-blooded characters both good and bad and beautifully rendered settings devoid of clichés. As Elser, Friedel is terrific—he also starred in Michael Haneke’s equally convincing German period drama The White Ribbon, another triumphant cinematic resurrection of a German village where violence simmers. Hirschbiegel’s prudent inclusion of archival material and the fine cinematography and art direction are other notable assets that enhance immersion into a long-gone, thankfully not forgotten era and place.

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