Titled “Elser” in Germany where its main character is better known, and “13 Minutes” in English, after the amount of time by which Georg Elser failed to kill Hitler, Oliver Hirschbiegel‘s latest film brings him back to Nazi Germany, the scene of his greatest cinematic triumph, “Downfall.” And if “13 Minutes” does not achieve that film’s level of sclerotic, spluttering compulsion — as central figures go it’s hard to beat “raving aging madman Hitler played by Bruno Ganz,” and Elser doesn’t quite measure up — we can at least be thankful that it’s very far from the royal fuck-up that was the dire “Diana.” “13 Minutes” is an elegant, expensive-looking, respectful history lesson that finds just enough interesting texture in terms of the religious, social, moral, and personal circumstances that led to the creation of this rogue ideologue, to save it from becoming dry. And while the temptation to sanctify Elser as a visionary resistance fighter must have been strong, to its credit, there is no Damascene conversion here, just a meticulous contextualization of the increments by which an ordinary man may come to commit an extraordinary act.
Georg Elser (played here by a dedicated and watchable Christian Friedel), a young carpenter and an accomplished musician from the small German town of Königsbronn spent the evening of November 6th, 1939 on his hands and knees in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, packing explosives into a pillar in front of which Hitler would stand in just two days’ time, delivering a speech to the party faithful. The bomb exploded as planned, killing several, but Hitler had left 13 minutes before, quite a bit earlier than scheduled, for unforeseen reasons. Elser was already in custody having been detained at the Swiss border and found to be carrying schematics and other suspicious items. Thoroughly incriminated as soon as the dust settled, he was brought to Gestapo HQ to be interrogated and tortured in the hopes he would reveal his accomplices. The remarkable thing about Elser, however, in those days of wild political intrigue, conspiracy and oppressive paranoia, was that there were no accomplices. He acted alone, and the rest of the film tells the story of how he came to do so, cross cut with scenes of him trying to convince Kriminalpolizei leader Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner) and Gestapo Head Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow), of that fact.
With loving period detailing and occasionally almost too-handsome cinematography from Judith Kaufman, Hirschbiegel and writers Fred Breinersdorfer and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer, build a picture of Elser as the definition of “a lover not a fighter” (one early scene has him literally avoid the political fisticuffs his friends are involved in by sneaking off to pursue his married paramour, Elsa, played by Katharina Schüttler). Meticulously, then, perhaps sometimes too much so, the film takes care to show how this overtly apolitical pacifist with an eye for the ladies might have become radicalized against the Nazi regime. His family’s Catholicism plays its role (there are nicely observed symbolic moments like the difficulty with which he prays after the assassination attempt, because of the night spent on his knees digging dynamite into that pillar.) And the arrest of his communist best friend, the cleaving of his village along Nazi lines, the mistreatment of local Jews and their “sympathizers,” and the discovery that a foundry he works in now produces armaments, all further stir him to activism.
All of these moments and more are gracefully incorporated into a smooth, glossy, historical drama, which could have used some of the jagged discomfort of “Downfall” but is content to remain a respectful prestige picture. And in that, it is a more successful film than nearest available comparison point, “Valkyrie,” whose story “13 Minutes” brushes against in the person of Arthur Nebe who, having supervised Elser’s interrogation in 1939, would six years later be ignominiously executed for his part in the other, better-known plot to kill Hitler. And it proves that the German Hirschbiegel is clearly most at home when he’s, well, at home (somebody hide his passport) and when he’s telling stories about men — he doesn’t seem to have much of a feel for female characters, but they are so secondary to the narrative here that it doesn’t matter hugely. Overall, Elser’s evolution from carefree charmer to haunted activist is convincingly traced, with the cutting around in time serving to break up a little of its overly episodic feel, while recurring motifs, like religiosity, unreliable fathers, and the role of cinema and newsreel footage, serve to add some thematic depth.
But the conundrum of the real-life story remain unexplored: [SPOILER ALERT ON A 70-YEAR OLD HISTORICAL FACT] why did the Nazis keep Elser alive so long after convicting him? And most interesting (and unanswerable): what if he had succeeded? Had he killed Hitler before the war could claim its millions and shape entire national identities, before the death camps and the Final Solution, would he be regarded as a hero now, or a terrorist? It’s a strange sort of fateful determinism that has the chief ambition of “13 Minutes” be the restoration of the honorific “resistance fighter” to Georg Elser’s name so long after the fact, but in that, and in the high-quality recreation of one of WWII’s lesser-known chapters, it is largely successful. [B-]