×

Berlin Film Review: ’13 Minutes’

The story of Hitler’s would-be assassin Georg Elser gets simplified treatment in this latest trivialization of WWII subject matter.

With:
Christian Friedel, Katharina Schuettler, Burghart Klaussner, Johann von Buelow, Felix Eitner, David Zimmerschied, Ruediger Klink, Simon Licht, Cornelia Koendgen, Martin Maria Abram, Michael Kranz, Gerti Drassl, Lissy Pernthaler, Valentina Repetto, Anna Unterberger, Anton Algrang, Michael Ehnert, Udo Schenk.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1708135/reference

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Berlin Film Review: '13 Minutes'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (noncompeting), Feb. 12, 2015. Running time: 113 MIN. (Original title: Elser")

Production: (Germany) A Lucky Bird Pictures, SWR, ARD Degeto, BR, WDR, Arte, Delphi Medien, Philipp Filmproduction production. (International sales: Beta Cinema, Oberhaching, Germany.) Produced by Boris Ausserer, Oliver Schuendler, Fred Breinersdorfer. Coproducers, Manfred Hattendorf, Michael Schmidl, Christine Strobl, Claudia Simionescu, Goetz Bolten, Andreas Schreitmueller, Philipp Hoepp.

Crew: Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Screenplay, Fred Breinersdorfer, Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer. Camera (color, widescreen), Judith Kaufmann; editor, Alexander Dittner; music, David Holmes; production designers, Benedikt Herforth, Thomas Stammer; costume designer, Bettina Marx; sound (Dolby Digital), Steffen Graubaum; sound designer, Andy Kennedy; line producer, Gabi Lins; assistant director, Jochen Gosch; casting, An Dorthe Braker.

With: Christian Friedel, Katharina Schuettler, Burghart Klaussner, Johann von Buelow, Felix Eitner, David Zimmerschied, Ruediger Klink, Simon Licht, Cornelia Koendgen, Martin Maria Abram, Michael Kranz, Gerti Drassl, Lissy Pernthaler, Valentina Repetto, Anna Unterberger, Anton Algrang, Michael Ehnert, Udo Schenk.

More Film

  • Jimmy Carter

    Tribeca Film Festival to Open With 'Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President'

    The 19th annual Tribeca Film Festival will open on April 15 with the world premiere of the documentary “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President.” The film explores Carter’s lifelong passion for all genres of music and how it helped propel him, a former peanut farmer from Georgia, all the way to the White House. Carter’s [...]

  • Berlin Film Festival Entry Cristi Puiu’s

    Berlin: Cristi Puiu’s ‘Malmkrog’ Debuts Trailer (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the trailer for Cristi Puiu’s “Malmkrog,” the opening film of the Berlin Film Festival’s new competitive strand, Encounters. Shellac is handling world sales. “Malmkrog” is set at the manor house of an aristocratic landowner in Transylvania. Among the handpicked guests who have arrived to spend the Christmas holidays [...]

  • No Time to Die Trailer

    Bond Film 'No Time to Die' Cancels China Premiere, Tour Due to Virus

    Due to the coronavirus epidemic, the new James Bond film “No Time to Die” has cancelled its Beijing premiere as well as a promotional tour with talent in April, according to Chinese reports. The film, which marks star Daniel Craig’s last turn as the iconic spy, is set to debut in North America on April [...]

  • Honest Candidate

    Korea Box Office: ‘Honest Candidate’ Wins Weekend as ‘Parasite’ Returns to Chart

    Opening on Wednesday (Feb. 12), comedy “Honest Candidate” topped the South Korean box office, ahead of “Little Women” and Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” which returned to the charts eight months after its original release. “Candidate” earned $6.52 million from 909,000 admissions over five days. Directed by Chang You-jeong (“Finding Mr. Destiny”), “Candidate” is the story of [...]

  • Sophia Loren

    Netflix Takes Global Rights to Sophia Loren's First Feature Film in a Decade

    Netflix has acquired global rights to drama “The Life Ahead,” which marks Sophia Loren’s return in front of the camera for a feature film after a decade. Directed by her son Edoardo Ponti, “Life Ahead” sees the iconic Italian Oscar winner playing Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor who forges a bond with a 12-year-old Senegalese [...]

  • The Book of Sun

    Oliver Stone to Head Saudi Arabia's Red Sea Festival Jury, Lineup Announced

    Oliver Stone will preside over the main jury of Saudi Arabia’s nascent Red Sea International Film Festival, which has unveiled its inaugural lineup. The fest will feature the Middle East premiere of Harvey Weinstein-inspired workplace abuse drama “The Assistant” amid a fresh mix of feature films and docs from Europe, the U.S., Asia and Africa [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content