Thirteen minutes … that’s how close a bomb made by a man named Georg Elser came to possibly killing Adolf Hitler in 1939. Had Elser succeeded, the history of the world would’ve been forever altered in unimaginable ways.
Many of us have often played the time machine game where we ask ourselves and friends, “If you had a time machine, what would you do?” The most common answer to that game is probably something along the lines of “Go back in time, kill Hitler.” Elser was the living embodiment of that time machine game answer, and he almost succeeded in taking out the evil dictator before he sent Germany to ruins.
13 Minutes, the latest from director Oliver Hirschbiegel, is a biopic on Elser. It ruminates on his possible motivations for the assassination attempt, while exploring what was surely a vicious and awful interlude with physical and psychological torture after his bomb missed its target and killed eight people. It’s Hirschbiegel’s second feature focusing on Hitler, and while it isn’t as powerful as Downfall, which studied a panicky Hitler in his final days, it’s still an occasionally fascinating piece of work.
The film starts with Elser (a strong Christian Friedel) planting dynamite in a compartment behind a speech podium, a podium that will soon have Hitler pontificating at it. Elser is subsequently caught and thrown into prison, moments before his explosives go off 13 minutes too late. He’s forced to tell his story.
Then Hirschbiegel’s movie becomes a mixture of gestapo torture horror show and Elser’s backstory as flashbacks show the events leading up to his decision to make the bomb. It’s in the backstory that the film flounders a little bit, concentrating too much on the love story between Elser and Elsa (Katharina Schuttler). The film also tells a sort of confused, noncommittal story about Elser’s political convictions and commitments.
Where the film works really well is in time thread involving the bomb’s aftermath, and Elser’s eventual imprisonment at the Dachau concentration camp. The man lived for five years after his bombing attempt, long enough to see his original fears about Hitler and his potential for destroying Germany come true. This man lived one of history’s most horrific existences, going through the hell of gestapo interrogation and the concentration camps, and very nearly making it out of the war alive.
Friedel does an excellent job of making Elser a fully fleshed character, even if the film’s script skimps on some of the deeper details. There are scenes of Elser enjoying summer days in a pre-war Germany, womanizing and playing music. These moments do a heartbreaking job of showing the innocence and joy that was lost when folks started paying a little too much attention to the jackass with the Chaplin mustache and stupid haircut.
Elser certainly sacrificed much with his actions, and the movie doesn’t shy away from the reality that his bomb killed eight and injured many, missing its main target because Hitler opted for a train instead of a plane and left the rally early. And let there be no mistake; the Nazi rally depicted in the film strikes a scary chord in today’s world with the events in Charlottesville. This movie was produced a couple of years ago, but it feels like they could’ve made it yesterday.
With 13 Minutes, Hirschbiegel has created bookend movies for the Holocaust horrors brought about by Nazi Germany. This movie deals with the buildup to the war, while Downfall dealt with the last paranoiac days. I’m sure watching the two films in succession would be a powerful experience, but I’m going to put that one off for a little while. I’ve had enough of Nazis and bullheaded political rallies these last couple of months.