Georg Elser’s biopic ‘13 Minutes’ is more than worth your time
Directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Written by: Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer and Fred Breinersdorfer
Starring: Christian Friedel, Katharina Schuttler, Burghart Klaubner, and Johann von Bulow
“13 Minutes” – Johann Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) lived a content, happy existence in Germany. Born in 1903, this carpenter and accordion player embraced life and seem to enjoy small moments, like playing music near a lake in the summertime and spontaneously dancing the tango with a pretty woman. Something dark and spooky, however, began encroaching on his easy going days, as this particular form slowly changed minds within the local, modest neighborhoods in which he inhabits. Comparable to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), some friends, acquaintances and many strangers welcome a new, “foreign” movement, which is actually a very nationalist one, the Nazi Party.
In “13 Minutes”, director Oliver Hirschbiegel delivers a sobering and visceral biopic about Georg Elser’s experience in Germany during the 1930s and the event that almost altered history in a most dramatic way.
Elser’s name is widely known in German spaces, because in Nov. 1939, he attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler. As the film opens, we see Elser planting a device – about the size of a briefcase – complete with several intricate gears and levers. As he sweats and toils over this bomb, he plans for its explosion during Hitler’s speech in Munich, and thereby removing the head of the Nazi Party.
Hirschbiegel avoids expensive productions of other Hitler assassination films like “Valkyrie” (2008) and “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), and instead focuses on a deep character study, as he transports us to the 1930s and the profoundly uncertain times within German households and town courtyards.
We do not actually see the bomb explode inside the location, but Hirschbiegel quickly informs us that Elser’s plan failed. The words “most unfortunately” never carried so much weight, as Hitler most unfortunately left the scene early, 13 minutes before the bomb’s detonation.
The SS quickly computes its investigation-math, and they nab Elser and hold him for several intense, difficult interrogations. Two officers, Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaubner) and Heinrich Muller (Johann von Bulow), ask direct questions, and when they do not receive answers, their men deliver heavy doses of pain and torture. These scenes effectively emote a hovering sense of doom, as they treat Elser like a rag doll within a nondescript, concrete-walled room of a bureaucratic office building, as sounds of typewriters and barking orders stir throughout its hallways.
Although, the film does not unfold as a 1-hour 54-minute torturous slog through repeated, back and forth Q&As. Hirschbiegel frequently ships us back to Elser’s history, beginning in 1932. His backstory is incredibly important, because we see the moments which organically change this carefree pacifist to an assassin.
In fact, at one point – via flashbacks – Elser says, “Violence has never achieved anything.”
As the film plays out, his edict clearly changes.
With many World War II movies featuring specific battles like Midway, D-Day, Pearl Harbor, and the eventual German surrender, it is rare to find films that focus on the rise of the Nazi Party, at least in U.S. cinema. “13 Minutes” is a German picture, and it displays the country’s nationalistic movement through Hitler’s influence at that time. Brownshirts spontaneously multiply within urban and rural settings, and the picture visually introduces their presence through teens and preteens wearing brown uniforms which oddly resemble Boy Scout outfits. Of course, their attitudes certainly do not reflect the altruistic nature of the aforementioned organization, as tolerance for independent thinking dwindles, and the Nazis begin to shun, persecute and separate Jewish communities.
We receive not only an insider’s view of the country’s shifting mores, but Elser’s internal shift as well. Friedel’s performance captures Elser’s dramatically changing attitude towards Germany’s rule of law, but he still maintains his character’s core values and clearheaded thinking. Elser remains noble and decent, rather than succumbing to the sudden takeover of bigotry.
The film also reflects this through his loving relationship with Elsa (Katharina Schuttler), a married woman who suffers brutal, autocratic rule from her abusing husband. As their love affair progresses, Hirschbiegel constructs a narrative parallel between Elser saving Elsa and his country. Although sometimes her husband’s violent acts feel over-the-top and almost too vicious to be believed, an independent observer also cannot comprehend how Germany’s soul morphs from the inside during the 1930s.
Heartbreaking and emotional at times, Elser eventually wonders out loud about his failed attempt in Munich. Look, one can turn a blind eye and ignore injustice, or one can act. Although, Elser could not alter Germany’s path, “13 Minutes” rightfully reflects this man’s heroic place in history.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.