Before making yet another film about the Third Reich, it would be wise for filmmakers to ask why. Is it to “never forget,” or is it because there always seems to be funding available for a Nazi pic? Oliver Hirschbiegel’s cinematic return to the era, “13 Minutes,” resurrects the story of Georg Elser, Hitler’s would-be assassin in 1939, yet as with countless films set in the period, the absence of subtlety combined with predictable dollops of sentimentalism once again trivialize events in the name of making them understandable. Unsurprisingly, international sales have been brisk, and Sony Classics’ early Berlinale pickup indicates confidence in the possibilities for a full-scale U.S. rollout.
Why is it taking so long for people to question whether a constant stream of trite movies on major subjects is really the best way to commemorate a tragedy? The answer, unfortunately, is that simplistic movies make the unfathomable comprehensible, allowing audiences a cheap emotional catharsis (tears in a Holocaust picture) or the soothing sensation of recognizing that a few of one’s fellow countrymen were righteous. “13 Minutes” falls into the latter category, using a love story to humanize the man who nearly killed Hitler. Few would deny that Elser deserves to be better known (Klaus Maria Brandauer’s 1989 “Seven Minutes” didn’t do the trick), yet the banal script, combined with sensationalized touches — the sight of flames reflected in Elser’s goggles is but one egregious example — brings the same tired approach to an historical moment in sore need of genuine, un-manipulated emotions and less-than-easy answers.
No doubt producers were attracted to the combo of Hirschbiegel, still best known for the superior “Downfall,” and scripter Fred Breinersdorfer, whose “Sophie Scholl” also centered around a popular Third Reich subject. And the Elser story has all the makings of a box office success: Nazi Germany plus a little-known sympathetic hero with an eye for the ladies and a conviction that Hitler was taking the Fatherland in a bad direction — making it easy for viewers to muse on a major historical “what if?” while feeling good that at least someone had the courage to act in the necessarily extreme manner.
The pic opens with Elser (Christian Friedel, “The White Ribbon”) planting dynamite in the Munich beer hall where Hitler (Udo Schenk) was to speak on Nov. 8, 1939. He sets the time-bomb mechanism and departs for the Swiss border, but his suspicious behavior alarms the guards, and he’s caught with compromising schematics. During interrogation, they receive word that a bomb killed seven people in the place where the Fuehrer was speaking – but Hitler was unscathed, having left the building 13 minutes before detonation. Elser is hauled before the head of the criminal police, Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner), and Gestapo chief Heinrich Mueller (Johann von Buelow).
Cut to the first of recurring flashbacks: It’s 1932, and jaunty clockmaker Elser plays the accordion and flirts with the women. He’s called home to the Swabian town of Koenigsbronn, since his alcoholic father (Martin Maria Abram) is too soused to look after the family, which includes ultra-pious mother Maria (Cornelia Koendgen). “Georgie” captures the attention of Elsa (Katharina Schuettler), though she’s married to abusive drunkard Erich (Ruediger Klink).
From this point on, the director shifts back and forth in time, starting with a dose of torture porn as Elser is savagely beaten before having a hot dowel shoved under his fingernails — here, as in the rest of the film, everything will be spelled out visually. His interrogators demand to know who he’s working for, but Elser was a solitary operative, and despite beatings, he refuses to invent a scenario. However, Hitler, via his SS Obergruppenfuehrer rep (Simon Licht), isn’t buying the lone-wolf scenario, demanding ever harsher punishments until the supposed conspiracy is revealed.
The purpose of all the flashbacks is twofold: to develop the sentimental side of the protag via his love for Elsa, and to depict the growing Nazification of picture-perfect Koenigsbronn. Unfortunately, both are not so much developed as schematized. Erich’s brutishness is one-dimensional (and why does he suddenly drop out of the picture?), while Elsa’s character, as written, is hardly that of a wife who’d put up with so much abuse. As for Elser’s hometown, first shown polarized between communists and National Socialists, its transformation into a swastika-bedecked municipality lacks nuance and fails to demonstrate or identify the reasons for the population’s enthusiastic reception of Nazi ideology.
As a postscript, Hirschbiegel includes a scene of Elser’s execution in Dachau in April 1945, almost one month before V-E Day. Frustratingly, the script fails to even speculate as to why this enemy of the Fuehrer not only wasn’t executed once his interrogation was over, but also was given preferential treatment in the concentration camp. Surely this mystery deserved some notional theorizing, but such ambiguity wouldn’t fit with the filmmakers’ determination to keep it simple and heroic. For good measure, they throw in a Nazi secretary (Lissy Pernthaler) who does Elser a kind deed, thus offering local audiences the comforting idea that a collaborator could also have a heart. What “13 Minutes” fails to understand is that it’s a moral imperative to remember, but it’s an ethical minefield to remember in a simplified manner.
Friedel is a charming performer, and his contribution is one of the film’s greatest assets. Not so the ridiculous hallucination sequence, shot on 8mm, in which Elser is injected with a truth serum. Otherwise, lensing is strong, utilizing the usual change in tonality and texture for scenes set in 1939 and those taking place earlier. Alexander Dittner’s editing is particularly good at the start, when he builds genuine tension as Elser plants the explosives.