13 Minutes

July 25, 2015
Christian Friedel in '13 Minutes' (2015)
Christian Friedel in '13 Minutes' (2015)

For a long time the Germans preferred not to dwell on the nasty facts of the Second World War, but nowadays they are emptying every skeleton out of the closet. In Berlin one may visit a museum called the Topography of Terror on the site of the old S.S. headquarters, while in Nuremberg there is the Documentation Centre at the Nazi Party Rallying Grounds.

German filmmakers have made their own contribution with a succession of tough films about the Nazi era. It may simply be that the current generation feels far enough removed in time to be able to examine the evils of those days. If the Nazis are unrecognisable in the vast majority of Germans today, there is a strong belief that the crimes of the past still need to be revisited to lay that spectre to rest.

Olivier Hirschbiegel has done more than his share in the cause of keeping Germans focused on their historical wounds. In Downfall (2004) he gave us a fearsome portrait of Hitler in his last days, fuming and ranting in a Berlin bunker. It’s not the director’s fault this footage keeps being appropriated by pranksters for lesser purposes, such as the recent clip that has the Führer protesting furiously about Shane Watson’s selection in the test team.

There are not many laughs to be had in Hirschbiegel’s new film, 13 Minutes, which tells the true story of Georg Elser, a loner who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1939, on the eve of World War Two. It is, at least, a return to familiar territory, after Diana, Hirschbiegel’s 2013 bio pic of the Princess of Wales, which might charitably be described as a faux pas.

The movie begins with Elser (Christian Friedel), planting an explosive device in a pillar of a Munich beer hall in which Hitler is due to give a speech. It’s no spoiler to reveal that he failed to dispose of the Führer, who left the building 13 minutes before the bomb exploded. Eight innocent people were killed. Meanwhile Elser had already been picked up at the Swiss border, with enough incriminating evidence to identify him as the culprit.

The rest of the story alternates between past and present, as we trace the background to Elser’s deed, and witness his torture and interrogation under the auspices of Police Chief, Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner) and Gestapo man, Heinrich Müller (Johan von Bülow).

The torture sequences are predictably brutal, but not lurid enough to force a more restrictive rating. The flashbacks take us to Elser’s home town of Königsbronn, where he returns from a job near Lake Constance to find a community divided between the rival faiths of Nazism and Communism.

Elser is not a joiner, although his sympathies lie with the leftists. He keeps his distance as brown shirts and swastikas becomes badges of social conformity.

The story of Elser’s radicalisation is caught up with a portrayal of his private life, in which he falls for local woman, Elsa (Katharina Schuttler), who is unhappily married to a beer-bellied thug named Erich (Rudiger Klink). We see Elser as a romantic and a sexual adventurer. His love of life is used to better emphasise his heroism and self-sacrifice. Elser is not Jewish, and as a skilled craftsman and musician he has the makings of a future. His act is motivated only by his realisation of the looming disaster that Hitler is creating.

Throughout his interrogation his captors can hardly believe Elser was a lone agent. They want so badly to see their prisoner as part of a conspiracy that when they fail to beat a list of names out of him, they administer a dose of truth serum. Finally they get him to construct another bomb, just to prove he had the know-how.

The constant to-and-fro between past and present becomes a dutiful trudge. We know where these stories are headed, so there is very little suspense involved, only a morbid curiosity as to the eventual fate of the main characters.

Hirschbiegler and his scriptwriters, Léonie-Claire and Fred Breinersdorfer, have put together a well-made, thoroughly professional feature, with uniformly good acting and cinematography. Yet there is a lacklustre feeling about this tale. It may be that we have seen these Nazis so often – some thoroughly evil and robotic; others such as Arthur Nebe, leavened by a touch of humanity – that they feel like stock figures. This is a case of truth resembling fiction.

Hirschbiegler’s narrative is weighed down by our knowledge that Elser’s bomb will fail to hit its target. Whether he is shown frolicking with friends at Lake Constance, or being beaten up by the Gestapo, we can’t help seeing this entire episode as a futile footnote to the historical reality of World War Two. Elser’s tragedy is that he was one of a small minority that resisted Hitler’s rise in a society that embraced the new order. He could have made a difference, but failed. The entire film hangs on the pathos of that failure, which is stretched out over two long hours.

13 Minutes
Directed by Olivier Hirschbiegel
Written by Léonie-Claire & Fred Breinersdorfer
Starring Christian Friedel, Katharina Schüttler, Burghart Klaussner, Johan von Bülow, Rudiger Klink, Felix Eitner
Germany, rated MA 15+, 114 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 25th July, 2015.