By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
13 minutes is nothing. It’s a delay on the trains, the length of time it takes to get through adverts in the cinema, a quick walk around the block, a snoozed alarm at dawn. It’s a tiny, insignificant passage of time, the same tiny, insignificant passage of time that Georg Elser missed his target by. Just 13 minutes closer and no more Hitler.
It’s impossible to know what the world might have been like had Elser succeeded in 1939, and director Oliver Hirschbiegel, returning to the era that brought him such acclaim with Downfall, doesn’t try. 13 Minutes isn’t about the bombing. It isn’t really about Elser. Instead, it’s a sombre, distressing account of a nation’s slide, lifted only by the refusal of some to comply.
Elser, played here by Christian Friedel, starts out with a childlike ambivalence to the wider world. He’s a playboy musician kicking back in the summer sun with a collection of women. This is the early 1930’s, a time of hope for a country rebuilding after the travesty of World War I. A brighter future is promised by Hitler and his Nazi party, but Elser doesn’t care. That’s none of his business, until he’s called on to finally pull his weight in the family business. Then Germany’s headlong march to destruction grows gradually clearer.
Turning up in his hometown to set his drunkard of a father on the straight and narrow, Elser initially carries on in the same way. He plays music in the local pub and seduces married Elsa (Katharina Schüttler). There’s a dalliance with the Communist Party inasmuch as his friend is a member, but he only gets involved in midnight vandalism to help out a pal. Innocence cannot last. Political opponents are rounded up in work battalions, a woman married to a Jew is shaved and publicly humiliated. Nazi officials grow arrogantly abusive. The future becomes clear, and this apolitical man, member of no party, takes things into his own hands.
The attempted assassination, using an ingeniously home fashioned bomb, is not held in reserve. Hirschbiegel opens with it, telling the story through flashbacks as Elser is interrogated. It’s a conventional approach, workmanlike and without flair. Some of the dialogue strives too hard to land punches as well. Elser carries out extremely literal conversations with friends and interrogators alike. His position is reinforced verbally too many times. It’s unnecessary because Hirschbiegel has already landed the message.
13 Minutes is anchored by a strong central relationship. Friedel’s journey from fun time guy to committed assassin never feels forced. His boyish features and natural exuberance are quite brilliantly sanded down until his face wears the grim reality of the times. Schüttler is equally impressive, another lost soul caught very personally in the wider problems of the time. They are convincing together, even more so apart.
Nothing is quite as convincing as the changes Hirschbiegel highlights in Germany over the course of the film. The sunny holiday paradise darkens dramatically through the casual cruelty of Nazi officials, the slathering abeyance of a population drunk on the prospect of technological progress and restored pride, and the disintegration of German life. Elser’s story can’t end well. We all know his plan failed. But that’s not really the point. What matters is that he tried. As bad as it gets, there’s still hope when people like Elser exist. Oh what the world might be if there were a few more.
13 Minutes is released this Friday July 17th.