13 Minutes is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
On November 8, 1939, a large bomb exploded in the crowded Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, killing eight people, and injuring more than 60 others. But none of those victims were the intended targets: a young man named Johann Georg Elser had set the bomb, five days before, in the hopes of killing Adolf Hitler during his annual speech commemorating the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch. Alas, on this particular year, the Führer cut his remarks short, and Elser’s carefully timed bomb missed killing Hitler—and averting the Second World War—by 13 minutes.
Labeled an assassin and a terrorist by his government—who then secreted him away in Dachau, to await a trial that never happened—Georg Elser was largely forgotten by history for nearly sixty years, until a biography was published in 1999 by historian Hellmut G. Haasis. Now, director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) has paid tribute to Elser’s story in his imperfect but intriguing film 13 Minutes, released in Europe as Elser in 2015, and currently in limited U.S. release.
Since we all know that Hitler didn’t die in 1939—and since this isn’t a Quentin Tarantino movie—Hirschbiegel wisely eschews linear storytelling to focus on a different tale of suspense: the question of how this ordinary, apolitical German man—portrayed in a very likably engaging performance by Christian Friedel—turned into a lone bomber. How well one thinks Hirschbiegel answers this question will probably be the dividing line on reactions to 13 Minutes, as the film provides no easy answers.
After a tense sequence showing the failed assassination and Elser’s subsequent arrest, 13 Minutes cuts back and forth between Elser’s interrogation by two German officers (Burghart Klaubner and Johann von Bülow, both excellent) and his life before. The Georg we meet in these flashbacks is a happy-go-lucky young man: a musician, a jack-of-all-trades workman, and an inveterate womanizer. He seems an unlikely candidate for a radical resistance fighter: while he is sympathetic to the cause of worker’s rights championed by his communist friend Schurr (David Zimmerschied), Georg has his own concerns: he is trying to save the family farm from the mismanagement of his drunken father (Martin Maria Abram), and he has fallen in love with a woman named Elsa (Katharina Schüttler) who is married to a violent brute (Rüdiger Klink).
Hirschbiegel weaves these two narratives together almost as if they are two separate movies: the quieter tale of illicit love running as a strange counter-narrative to scenes of Elser attempting to withstand appalling torture from his captors, who want a written confession in which he would name his (non-existent) collaborators. (The scenes of Elser being interrogated are shot with a brutal, almost fetishistic explicitness: it borders on being excessive, but it ends up feeling necessary. In one powerful shot, the interrogation-room secretary [Lissy Pernthaler] is sent out of the room, and Hirschbiegel stays on her conflicted face as she sits patiently in the hallway, listening to Elser scream within. It’s typical of the director’s approach here—used in the juxtapositioning of the film’s two larger narratives—to show us both the evil and the banality of evil, without a lot of extraneous or phony commentary.)
And the screenplay (by father-and-daughter team Fred and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer) resists the urge to draw obvious, linear connections between the two narratives, or to invent overly-simplified explanations for Georg’s gradual radicalization. (The recent—and far lesser—film The Exception relied on one specific, sensationalistic incident in its protagonist’s past that activated his conscience: 13 Minutes, to its credit, contrives no such easy emotional catalyst.) In the flashback’s about Georg’s life, we see him notice only gradually how life in his rural village is changing under Hitler’s rule, until he becomes stoically horrified by the behavior and attitudes of his neighbors. And we see—without the filmmakers needing to make it explicit—how the worst elements of human nature—from petty prejudices to the violently abusive behavior of Erich—could flourish, under the Third Reich, into an environment that could accept and empower greater atrocities.
13 Minutes does seem to skimp on some elements: the love story is not entirely convincing, and it feels like there are some key moments missing in Elser’s final decision to commit himself to action. But while we might wish for a more insightful explanation of Elser’s psychology, I rather appreciated Hirschbiegel’s show-don’t-tell approach to this story, and the way Friedel silently, somewhat enigmatically embodies how an average man could eventually decide that violent action was necessary to save the soul of his country. The whole point of the story—at least as the dual narratives of 13 Minutes portray it—seems to be that Elser was an ordinary man, lifted inarticulately into action by a slowly rising tide of unacceptable evidence. Hirschbiegel may ultimately be interested not in the question of why this one man took such drastic action, but in making us wonder why Georg Elser was forced—as he constantly assures his interrogators he did—to act alone. “Funnily enough,” he says, “nobody would have joined me.”