It’s early November, 1939. Hitler and the Soviet Union have invaded Poland, Britain and France have honored treaties and World War II has officially begun in Europe.
And a mop-topped workman, his teeth clenching a flashlight, his hands and knees bloodied with effort, is finishing up a job. He’s filling a pillar at an infamous Munich beer hall with dynamite, setting the elaborate clockwork trigger, and carefully concealing his handiwork.
When others fell in line behind the Nazi regime, while children completed their sixth year of Brown Shirt/Hitler Youth indoctrination, when Reds and other dissenters either joined Jews in concentration camps, fled or went into hiding, machinist/clock builder and master woodworker Georg Elser saw a problem with a simple solution.
As one of his interrogators later put it, to Elser, “Hitler is war — and if he goes, there will be peace.”
“Downfall” director Oliver Hirshbiegel‘s “13 Minutes” is a taut, smart and straightforward bio-drama of this largely forgotten early figure in German resistance to the Hitler regime. Christian Friedel (“The White Ribbon”) makes Elser a sympathetic, over-compensating laborer whose hard life and personal disappointments have as much to do with this assassination attempt as his seething outrage at the injustices and thuggery of the Nazis and Germany’s compliant masses.
We know, even those who don’t know Elser’s story, that he failed. Hitler dodged that bomb, just as he dodged the one by the “Valkyrie” plotters in 1944. The film’s nervy early minutes dispense with that part of the plot. Hitler speaks (audio of the real speech playing behind a look-alike at the podium), makes an early exit and Elser makes a clumsy attempt at a get-away.
Hitler survives and Elser is picked up at the Swiss border, his pockets stuffed with bomb-making gear and schematics. “13 Minutes” is about his interrogation, and through flashbacks, the life that led him to his date with destiny.
“Heil Hitler, Herr Esler,” Nazi police official Arthur Nebe (the wonderful character actor Burghart Klaußner) offers, upon meeting the prisoner. Elser pauses, thinks and replies “Good day.”
Whatever else he’s done or failed to do in his life up to this point, Elser finds the bravery to not give an inch to the torturers who surround him, whip, punch and burn him with a hot icepick.
Hirschbiegel’s film, based on a script by Leonie-Claire and Fred Breinersdorfer, makes clear that Elser’s past had frustrations, guilt and shame that this one act might atone for.
A womanizing accordion player who later hums to his torturers, he took up with a married woman (Katherina Schuttler, flinty), rented a room in her house and stood by too long as her brute of a husband beat her.
He resents the obligations his drunken father has imposed on his life through his blundering, carelessness and incapacity. He winces, speaks out but shrinks when he first sees uniformed fascists bullying a helpless woman in front of the whole town. Smart-mouthing Hitler Youth who taunt Elser and his family as they walk to a Wurttemburg church is about as brave as this man got.
But when the idea came to him and opportunities fell into place to allow this clever working class Fritz-of-All-Trades to “solve” Germany’s big problem, he took on the job.
There’s defiance in him, but also a sarcastic sense of humor. He taunts his fellow Red Front members for misspelling the graffiti they’re painting on a wall, scat-sings his way into women’s hearts and when asked who ordered him to plant the bomb, cooks up a yarn, through swollen eyes and bloodied lips, about how there are only two phones in the village where he grew up, but somehow Churchill got him on the line to give him his “orders.”
You’re going to feel the timing of this 2015 German (with English subtitles) production is oddly apt long before Elser is challenged by Nebe and the more thuggish Nazi interrogator Heinrich Muller (Johann Von Bulow, volcanic) about how “an ethnic German could hate the Fuhrer so much,” when Hitler is “making Germany great” again.
But as the world is roiled by divisive, history-repeating political shifts that draw comparisons to the 1930s and as Americans face, for the first time, a true “What would you/WE have done when faced with fascism at home” soul-searching, “13 Minutes” reminds us that if one evil man can start a movement, that can inspire one equally fanatical counterpart to try and end it.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violence and some sexuality
Cast: Christian Friedel, Katherina Schuttler, Burghart Klabner, Johann Von Bulow
Running time: 1:54