In a small German village, a museum has been erected to honor would-be Hitler assassin and carpenter Georg Elser. But outside the town of Konigsbronn, little is known about this country craftsman who might have changed the course of history. As directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (who made the masterful 2004 film “Downfall”), “13 Minutes” illuminates Elser’s story in a mostly compelling fashion.
In November 1939, Elser was arrested on the Swiss border, his pockets full of schematics and suspicious gear. Moments later, a bomb explodes in the Munich Bürgerbräukeller, immediately behind the Führer’s lectern, killing eight people.
The film intercuts between the harsh questioning and torture Elser endures from top Nazi brass after his failed assassination attempt, and a portrait of the resistance fighter as a young man. Before his imprisonment Elser (Christian Friedel, “The White Ribbon”) had lived in a rural town and fallen in love with Elsa (Katharina Schuttler, “Free Fall”), a married woman.
He had also watched his friend Josef Schurr (David Zimmerschied), a member of the Communist party, sent off to a concentration camp. As he watched the atrocities committed by the Nazi party, even from within his small town, Elser’s outrage swelled. He grew increasingly resolute in his conviction to prevent more bloodshed.
Friedel — who looks a bit like a young, brown-eyed Frank Sinatra — has a thoughtful, sensitive face, which speaks volumes in a role that requires he be in nearly every frame of the movie. He is a relatively sympathetic figure: musician, roguish ladies’ man with a sarcastic sense of humor, and devoted son.
“13 Minutes” is well-acted, with authentic settings and an involving structure, but it’s undercut somewhat by a rather flat love story. Clearly, it needed to be part of the saga, but it should have been a smaller part.
Too often an unnecessary relationship is shoehorned into a film, simply to add romance. In this case, Elser’s relationship with the married Elsa is key to our understanding of his character. It reveals Elser’s nervy chutzpah; he carried on a love affair with Elsa while living as a lodger under the roof of the house she shared with her husband and children. The film posits that a man with this kind of resolute independence is also capable of strong political convictions. True enough. But their many scenes together have only intermittent chemistry.
That Elser acted alone is a point that Nazi officials couldn’t wrap their heads around. He was beaten in an effort to reveal accomplices. Through it all, Elser stands firm: he planned and executed the plot entirely on his own.
One of the key officials interrogating him is Nazi police captain Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaubner, “Good Bye Lenin!”). Klaubner makes a lasting impression in the role, but the grilling, initially tense and disturbing, is ultimately not very illuminating and grows repetitive. (In reality, it surely must have been, but we don’t necessarily need to see it for as long as we do.)
One of the most intriguing aspects of the film doesn’t involve Elser directly: We get a vivid sense of how fascism takes over a town and changes the residents, in ways both insidious and overt. Near the town sign of Konigsbronn, another placard is erected that announces: “Jews Not Wanted.” Young children, presumably members of Hitler Youth, sing nasty, taunting songs. A woman with a Jewish boyfriend is humiliated in the town square. Village shops slowly begin to incorporate Nazi propaganda. Traditional local festivals morph into Nazi rallies. Restrictions on daily life abound.
Elser is depicted in an honest manner. He was an ordinary man, not at all saintly, even occasionally selfish and womanizing. He was a working man, transformed into a resistance fighter by what he saw around him and his fears about the future. He was not educated, but the fact that he could clearly see what many who more educated could not is a fascinating point of the film.
The screenplay, by father-daughter writing team Fred Breinersdorfer (“Sophie Scholl: The Final Days”) and Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer, has some sharp dialogue. “Why do they follow this gangster?” Elser says to Schurr about Hitler. “They want war. We’ll all die, and the country with us. We have to do something. We have to attack the leadership….We can’t wait till it’s too late.”
The title refers to Hitler exiting his Nov. 8, 1939, anniversary speech in Munich 13 minutes earlier than expected. Had the German leader stayed for the anticipated time, just those few moments longer, the course of history would have been radically altered.
What becomes of Elser may surprise those unfamiliar with his story. The timing of his eventual fate is particularly resonant, as is his remorse — not for trying to kill Hitler, but for his inability to do so. (“How can one man fail as horribly as I?” he asks rhetorically.)
While not as powerful as the brilliant “Downfall,” which chronicled Hitler’s final days, “13 Minutes” is definitely a story worth telling, intriguingly timed and it’s certainly authentic — the filmmakers employed Peter Steinbach, scientific director of Berlin’s Memorial to German Resistance, as consultant.
One of the Nazi officials ponders how an “ethnic German” could hate Hitler so much when the Fascist leader was “making Germany great.” Again? The film leaves us with much to ponder.