A little over a decade ago, director Oliver Hirschbiegel made a name for himself outside of his native Germany with his 2004 import Downfall, a fascinating account of Adolf Hitler’s doomed final days in the spring of 1945. That film had a grippingly claustrophobic sense of madness, thanks in large part to the monstrous performance of Bruno Ganz. His portrayal was so ferocious and indelible that it became the basis of countless internet memes with Ganz’s screaming Hitler reacting to everything from finding out Oasis has broken up to discovering the iPod Touch doesn’t come with a built-in camera. That’s impact. As for Hirschbiegel, well, his next act wasn’t quite as rosy. His subsequent call-up to Hollywood resulted in the 2007 Nicole Kidman-Daniel Craig stinker The Invasion and even-more-regrettable 2013 Naomi Watts Lady Di biopic, Diana. So you can’t really blame the guy for wanting to return to the subject matter of his greatest triumph with his latest film, 13 Minutes.
Based on a true events, 13 Minutes tells the story of a defiant German musician-turned-resistance fighter named Georg Elser, who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1939. The German-language film wastes no time getting to the climax. It’s November 8, 1939, and Elser (played by Christian Friedel) is sweating and breathing heavily as he rigs an elaborate homemade bomb—an intricately engineered system of cogs, charges, timing devices, and dynamite that he places in a wooden box at the Munich Burgerbraukeller shortly before Hitler is due to give a speech to his top brass. We know he will fail, obviously. But we don’t know how yet. Elser is stopped by the police outside of the building while he’s trying to get away, and they throw him into jail because of a Communist pin he’s wearing on the lapel of his coat. While in custody, he keeps glancing at his watch nervously. Waiting. Waiting. The bomb finally goes off—13 minutes after Hitler has left the building. And the big what-if of the film (much like the 2008 Tom Cruise thriller, Valkyrie) is the thought of how many lives could have been saved had he rigged his device with a little more precision.
The police bring in the Gestapo to force a confession out of Elser, but he’s defiant—even under torture. But when they round up his fiancé Elsa (Katharina Schuttler), he buckles under an implied threat on her safety. Between rounds of third-degree grilling, the film flashes back to Georg’s life and the events that led him to wanting to murder Hitler. Carefree days with friends by the lake get complicated by family financial hardships and the growing influence of the Nazi party with their daily sadistic humiliations, which start Elser on a slow path to radicalization. There’s also his love affair with the married Elsa, who becomes pregnant with his child. The chapters of the film set in the present work much better than the ones in the past, which occasionally feel like lengthy detours that stall the story’s narrative momentum. You can’t help but wonder if it was the best idea, pacing-wise, to kick off the film as a white-knuckle espionage thriller only to downshift into a sentimental love story.
Still, even if it becomes a little dry and unsubtle in stretches, 13 Minutes is a well-made, well-acted chronicle of one man’s conscience and also an important exhumation of a once-hidden chapter of history. What you’re left with is a crushing, almost sickening sense of what a short amount of time 13 minutes is in one sense, and how monumental that span of time was to the fate of so many people in another. B