13 Minutes (Elser)
Germany (2015) Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel
After the embarrassment of his flop biopic of the Princess Of Wales, Diana, German director Oliver Hirschbiegel returns to the subject with which he made his name via 2004’s spellbinding Downfall, Nazi Germany, with much more gratifying and satisfying results.
The focus this time isn’t Hitler himself but a long forgotten incident little known outside of Germany surrounding a failed assassination attempt on the Führer in 1939 at the hands of a humble carpenter Georg Elser (Christian Friedel). The reason Elser failed is because his timer was thirteen minutes out; Hitler had long left the venue and eight innocent bystanders were killed instead.
Employing a unique narrative, the film opens with the actual attack going down, with Elser planting his homemade time bomb at the venue where Hitler (Udo Schenk – seen only very briefly from a distance) is delivering a speech, then leaving prior to the explosion. However Elser is stopped by the guards on duty who discover his equipment and Red Party badge and is promptly arrested.
During interrogation by heavy handed Nazi officials – Police chiefs Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner) and Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow) and SS Obergruppenführer (Simon Licht) – Elser endures unspeakable physical torture yet refuses to speak until they present him with the love of his life Elsa (Katharina Schüttler). The story is then told via flashback interspersed with the events of the present day.
It seems odd and remarkable that Elser’s story is not widely known internationally which says much about the Nazi’s ability to bury bad press, since – according to the footnotes before the end credits – it took a few decades before Elser was recognised as a freedom fighter. Hirschbiegel’s film should rectify this even with the admitted fictionalisation of his private life.
So what inspires a well-mannered pacifist to try and kill the self-appointed leader of the country? By the Nazis’ admission it is unthinkable that any German would hate Hitler and not support his reign of terror, to which Else explains that persecuting Jews, locking up dissenters and oppressing the working classes is not his idea of utopia. This blasphemy earns Elser a few slaps across the face and lashes across the back until he vomits.
Yet, as we learn, it was standing by and watching his friends and fellow townsfolk suffer under the Nazi regime that forced Elser to use his knowhow of carpentry and technology to develop a bomb, believing that Hitler’s death would restore order to the country. However, more significantly was the treatment of his beloved Elsa, who was a married other of one when he met her that was the greater impetus.
Married to bullying drunken party member Erich (Rüdiger Klink), the treatment of Elsa is a parallel of the Nazi treatment of dissenters and witnessing this first hand is too much for caring Elser. When Erich and Elsa finally divorce it is too late and Elser is already neck deep into his assassination plot and is forced to leave Elsa almost as soon as they get together.
Along with films like Sophie Scholl this is another deeply evocative and eye opening companion piece to dispel any silly notion that ALL Germans supported Hitler, reminding us many were just as appalled as the rest of us and just as active in trying to spreading the truth. But you know what they say about absolute power.
Of course the irony is not lost on the audience as the Nazis advocate life being better under Hitler while beating the holy hell out of Elser for not agreeing. But what baffles them the most of how Elser was able to mastermind all of this on his own and as the film progresses, they are forced to eat their words when one by one their experts corroborate his explanations.
Rather expectedly the Nazis are portrayed as unflinchingly evil, cold-blooded robots, but then again their reputation does kind of precede them. Hirschbiegel adds balance by having those on the periphery slowly sympathising with Elser. There is also friction between Nebe and Müller as the latter thinks Nebe is going soft for readily believing Elser’s claims while Müller remains resolutely cynical.
Perhaps lacking the intimacy and intensity of Downfall, Elser’s story is quietly compelling stuff and beautifully acted, supported by gorgeous cinematography and a perfectly realised recreation of wartime Germany. Elser is the archetypal weakling snapping under the pressure of a bullying regime and his journey is related with an air of reverence and empathy without over-glorifying him.
With his unassuming and suitably “nerdy” looks Christian Friedel is not your average leading man but he proves himself as a very capable actor and excellent choice to portray Elser. An essentially timid man with a strong moral compass Friedel brings much heart and empathy to the role, and undergoes much physical trauma in depicting the emotional and mental suffering Elser endured.
Freidel even commands the screen while next to esteemed veteran Burghart Klaussner as the stoic Nebe and Johann von Bülow’s pitbull approach to playing Müller. Some viewers may recognise Katharina Schüttler from the TV mini-series Generations Of War a couple of years back, where she played an ambitious singer who sold herself to the Nazis. Here she essentially supplies the glamour again as Elsa, yet with a more homely base to act as Elser’s source of motivation.
With so many key elements of the stories from this period in place – the lone man taking a stand, families torn apart, Jews being mistreated, the intransigent Nazi stranglehold etc. – one might dismiss 13 Minutes just another war time fable but which it might well be, but the story is too historically important to remain a secret.
A fascinating tale brought alive through superb performances and engaging storytelling, it would be a shame to continue to ignore the tragic yet profound legend of Georg Elser.