THERE WERE AT LEAST thirty attempts on Hitler’s life from 1933 until his death, the most well know of which was, Operation Valkyrie, which was popularised–and romanticised–by the 2008 film of the same name, starring Tom Cruise.
Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were, initially, enthusiastic about Nazism and the colonisation of Poland, and only soured towards Hitler and his policies extremely late in the day, when the tide began to turn against the Third Reich. Historians agree that Stauffenberg and the majority of the others were aristocrats and social conservatives who approved of German domination of continental Europe, but wished an upper-class élite to be at its helm, not the leaders of the populist, working-class Nazi Party.
That was not the case for George Elser, around whom Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes revolves. Elser did not have the luxury of co-conspirators with military experience and intimate access to Hitler when he made his attempt on the Fuhrer’s life in 1939. And unlike Stauffenberg, whose actions can be said to be at least in part motivated out of selfish desire, Elser’s motives were practical and, Oliver Hirschbiegel asserts, highly moral.
In the opening scene of 13 Minutes, Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) looks disdainfully at a Nazi flag, having hidden several sticks of dynamite connected to a wooden timing device in the basement beneath a Munich bierkeller, in which Adolf Hitler is due to give a speech.
The assassination attempt is unsuccessful–the home-made bomb detonates, but misses Hitler by thirteen minutes–and Elser is caught attempting to cross the border into Switzerland. The attempt on Hitler’s life is traced to Elser, and the German security services in Berlin first question him, and then torture him, to try to have him reveal the identities of his co-conspirators. Elser insists that he acted alone.
The film is a character study of Georg Elser. Hirschbiegel and the scriptwriters, father and daughter team Fred and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer, punctuate–clumsily–sequences of torture with Elser’s former life in pre-Nazified Germany. In the cold and desaturated present, the Kripo thugs beat Elser bloody; in the glowing warmth of the past, he dances joyfully along the banks of Lake Konstanz. Elser is depicted as a charming and creative man content to enjoy the simpler pleasures that life affords and dismayed by the rise of the Nazis. There is a syrupy subplot involving Elser’s relationship with Elsa (Katharina Schuttler), a woman married to a predictably unsavoury and passionately pro-Nazi husband, which does nothing to strip the film of its already mawkish patina.
The film belongs to Friedel, who turns in a very good performance as Elser. And this is to his great credit, because the Elser of 13 Minutes is depicted in an almost impossibly positive light. He is charming and musical, principled and brave, and, to the amazement of the Nazi security officials (“half the roof has caved in!”), technically proficient enough to design one of the world’s first time-bombs to kill Adolf Hitler. His assorted dalliances and relationship with a married woman are justified by the appalling, drunken behaviour of her husband. Hirschbiegel misses few opportunities to train his camera on the concerned face of Elser every time there is mention of a Nazi atrocity. Elser good; Nazis bad, the film tells us. Well yes, but we do not need to be reminded of this at every opportunity.