A tribute to Georg Elser, the man who tried to assassinate Hitler, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes uncovers the journey from pacifist to freedom fighter.
A Self-Made Heroby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After the disappointment of Diana, Oliver Hirschbiegel has returned to what he does best – Second World War films for export. And with the story of Georg Elser, the lone dissident that on 8th November 1939 attempted to assassinate Hitler with a time-bomb in Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller, Hirschbiegel is on a winning streak akin to his Academy Award-nominated Downfall. But while Der Untergang offered a peek into Adolf Hitler’s bunker and the implosive final days of the Third Reich, 13 Minutes takes a break from German soul-searching with a heroic tale of resistance. And certainly, Elser’s story is one worth celebrating. Only, even more than Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Hirschbiegel seems determined there should be only one good German.
A carpenter, clockmaker, musician, Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) is living the high life in Switzerland on the shores of Lake Constance. Until, that is, he’s forced to return to his family in Königsbrunn after his drink-addled and heavily indebted father has an accident. Stuck in this small southern German town, the communist sympathiser and womaniser, falls in love with local lass Elsa (Katharina Schüttler) and watches Nazism descend on Königsbrunn, deciding – with his skill for time-pieces, a local quarry housing dynamite and a munitions factory on his doorstep – to take matters into his own hands, and assassinate Hitler. He targets Hitler’s annual speech in Munich held on the anniversary of the Nazi putsch, but due to a problem with his aeroplane, Hitler leaves early. And Elser’s bomb explodes 13 minutes too late.
With Downfall, Diana and now Elser, Oliver Hirschbiegel seems to be polemicising the act of looking; watching Hitler without humanising him, watching the Princess of Wales even as she’s hounded to her death by paparazzi watching her, and watching Georg Elser – the one good German overlooked by history. But what makes Hirshbiegel’s films problematic is his reluctance to do more than simply watch. With 13 Minutes however, the director takes great pains, within the twin tales of both his backstory and his imprisonment, to underline Elser’s utter uniqueness. There’s Elser’s simple black suit amidst swathes of brown and green uniforms, his friend Josef (David Zimmerschied), a communist Häftling too discouraged himself to believe in Hitler’s vulnerability as well as Elser’s own protestations that no-one else would have been foolish enough to help him. Even the torture instigated by Gestapo leader Müller (Johann von Bülow) and Head of Kripo Nebe (Burghart Klaußner) drives desperately, but fruitlessly, towards uncovering Elser’s co-conspirators, only finally conceding that he was in fact capable of carrying out the attack alone. And while it deservedly makes a hero of Elser, this single-mindedness underserves the smaller acts of resistance carried out by thousands.
Intercutting between Elser’s confession and his sweet memories of youth, sparked by a song or a word, 13 Minutes recreates Elser’s mental state as he escapes torture by taking refuge in the past. Dramatically it succeeds, but it’s a fairly clunky device that downplays the dynamics of the Nazi interrogation chamber. And as Elser’s torturer Nebe goes on to take part in the Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler (for which he is hanged), there’s a fascinating but underplayed battle of wills, as Elser, over a series of interrogations, manages to convince his opponent. Subversive indeed.
Beyond the polemics of the torture chamber however, Elser does draw us in to its politics. And while Downfall had secretary Traudl Junge to guide us through the murky subterranean goings-on in the bunker, the secretary in 13 Minutes plays a similarly crucial role. Unlike the suicidally heroic Elser or the infuriated Nazi Nebe, this unnamed woman is an everyman, apolitical and ambivalent. Her pragmatic position however is undermined by Judith Kaufmann’s dramatic cinematography, when – as Elser is being tortured in his cell – the camera revolves around the quietly reading witness, fixing her and forcing her to take sides. It’s a rapid politicisation that holds well for humanity though, as the secretary is moved enough to hand Elser a photo of his sweetheart Elsa. One he carries with him through his many years of imprisonment. But with a brilliant performance from Christian Friedel (who played Heinrich von Kleist in Amour Fou), Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Elser is above all the celebration of a forgotten hero, perhaps not complicated but still monumental.
13 Minutes is released on 17th June 2015 in the UK