“13 Minutes” is a powerful film based on Georg Elser’s failed 1939 attempt to assassinate Hitler. The German film takes its title from a fateful fact: Hitler left 13 minutes before the bomb painstakingly built and planted by Elser exploded at Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller, killing eight bystanders.
With stunning cinematography, exquisite performances and sparing use of an ethereal score by David Holmes, director Oliver Hirschbiegel makes this moving historical drama as much about memory and lost love as it is about resistance and suffering.
Hirschbiegel compellingly tells Elser’s story by alternating between grim prison scenes and vivid flashbacks. This temporal interplay conveys a rich sense of the conditions that made a peaceful carpenter become a resistance fighter. While Nazis interrogate Elser in a process featuring torture, isolation and chillingly meticulous bureaucracy, Elser periodically retreats into his vivid memory, recalling happier days.
Hirschbiegel makes brilliant use of light in portraying Elser’s memories, with the sunlit Swabian countryside of his recent past contrasting with the dour prison of his present. The film leisurely portrays Elser’s past pursuits of music and love in an idyllic world of misty hills and ivy-covered houses. We watch as Nazism invades the nostalgic countryside: uniformed children read anti-Semitic slogans on Swastika-covered walls, while Nazi party members openly threaten Elser’s Communist friends.
Christian Friedel is fantastic, delivering a complicated Elser who is only slowly driven to act. A naturally carefree and sensuous musician, Friedel’s Elser easily wins our sympathy. Elser’s profound sensitivity to others’ suffering helps us understand his world. He aids his Bolshevik friend Josef Schurr suffering as a forced laborer, recoils when a woman is publicly humiliated for having a Jewish boyfriend, and grimly observes how local Nazi leader Hans Eberle recruits Nazis by combining coarse threats with promises of party investment in their remote community.
Katharina Schüttler gives a powerful performance as Elsa Härlin. A victim of her brutal husband Erich’s domestic violence and a mother struggling to feed her children, Elsa nevertheless emerges as a vibrant character who refuses to let dark times dampen her passions for music, film and fashion. No incidental love-interest designed to complement the protagonist, Schüttler’s Elsa is an equally vital half of a couple whose chemistry is scintillating if brief. Elsa’s joyous surprise as Georg woos her by confidently joining her in a demonstration of the tango is a remarkable cinematic portrayal of becoming smitten.
Torture in the film is violent and explicit. Two paired Nazi officers strikingly embody a horrific police state. Johann von Bülow is terrifying as Gestapo officer Heinrich Müller, a cold and sadistic extremist who ultimately turns on Arthur Nebe, a serious Kriminalpolizei investigator (subtly played by Burghart Klaußner) who seems genuinely unnerved by Elser’s dignified commitment to human freedom and decency.
Two scenes with Nebe’s secretary (Anna Holmes) reveal this film’s delicate power. The everyday brutality of Nazism is conveyed by a long shot focusing on her sunlit face as she quietly reads in a hallway while the tortured Elser’s screams fill the backdrop. Later, moved by Elser’s tearful request that she apologize to his victims’ families for him, the secretary secretly gives him a photograph of Elsa—a poignant moment where a monstrous bureaucracy breaks down and a small sign of hope and memory is shared.
3 ½ stars (out of four)
Christian Friedel, Katharina Schüttler and Johann von Bülow star in film about failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. 113 minutes. Rated R for disturbing violence and some sexuality.