An effort to assassinate Adolf Hitler (and other Nazi leaders) in the early days of World War II is dramatized through the interrogation of the perpetrator, juxtaposed with flashbacks to his past, in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “13 Minutes.” Like an earlier attempt to bring the story to the screen—Klaus Maria Brandauer’s “Seven Minutes” from 1989—it doesn’t do full justice to the story of Georg Elser, who sought to kill the Führer with a precisely-timed bomb while he gave his annual speech in a Munich beer hall on November 8, 1939, the anniversary of the failed 1923 attempt at a putsch in Bavaria that led to Hitler’s arrest and imprisonment but also made his political reputation. Elser was caught at the Swiss border with incriminating evidence and transported back into Germany, where he learned that Hitler had escaped the explosion by the titular thirteen minutes, being called away early for travel back to Berlin.
In the fragmented telling contrived by Hirschbiegel and screenwriters Fred and Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer, Elser (Christian Friedel) is first shown planting his dynamite-laden bomb in a pillar behind the podium from which Hitler was to speak, and then being caught and dragged in for interrogation by Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner), the head of the criminal division of the German police force or Kripo, and Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow), the head of the Gestapo. Initially Elser refuses to answer their questions, but after learning that Hitler had escaped and undergoing torture, he claims that he had acted alone. That is unacceptable to Hitler and the snarling SS officer (Simon Licht) who are certain that the bombing must have been the work of a wider conspiracy and demand that the interrogators compel Elser to confess to being part of a larger plot.
As the questioning continues, including a session using mind-control drugs, Elser’s memory flashes back to the events that led up to his decision to attempt to decapitate the Nazi regime. The segments, which punctuate the interrogation, begin in 1932, with womanizer Elser, who works in a Konstanz clock factory, enjoying an afternoon at the nearby lake. He’s soon called back to his hometown in Württemberg by his mother (Cornelia Köndgen), however, when his alcoholic father (Martin Maria Abram) proves unable to tend to business. There, he watches with increasing concern as Königsbronn grows more and more supportive of the Nazis, whose thugs attack communist party members, including his friend Josef (David Zimmerschied), while cherubic little members of the Hitler Youth even chant disparagingly about religion.
Time is also devoted to Elser’s affair with a married woman, Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), whose drunkenly abusive husband Erich (Rüdiger Klink) epitomizes the cruelty the new regime represents. It’s the accumulation of nastiness and bigotry, the film suggests, that led Elser to take action that he felt might save Germany from disaster; the film also holds to the view, challenged by some, that he acted alone and that the regime’s efforts to implicate others in a conspiracy were politically motivated.
The film is generally quite faithful to the historical record, down to a postscript that shows Elser being taken off for execution in Dachau, where he has been held prisoner, years later in 1945—only a short time before the end of the war and the evacuation of the camp—and Nebe also being hanged, charged with conspiring against the Führer himself. Inevitably scenes are invented to fit the need for dramatic effect and the script’s interpretive stance, but overall the case is presented in solid docu-drama style (even Elser’s musical side, with him playing both accordion and zither, is accurate), though the juxtaposition of interrogation and flashback results in a stuttering style that Alexander Dittner’s editing skill can’t entirely smooth over. Otherwise the physical production is strong, with the production design by Benedikt Herforth and Thomas Stammer and the costumes by Bettina Marx creating an evocative period feel, and Judith Kaufmann’s widescreen cinematography is luminous, although the drug-induced hallucination sequence is clumsy and intrusive.
The lead performances are also excellent. Though he’s unable, like the script, to fully reveal the secrets behind Elser’s motivation, Friedel offers a touching performance as one of those “good Germans” familiar from “The Young Lions” on who tried to stand up against a monstrous evil. (Another example is given in the person of the secretary who records Elser’s confession, played by Lissy Pernthaler, who shows the prisoner a bit of kindness when she can. Such assurances that principled people existed even in a totalitarian regime are one of the great comforts this genre of war film offers.) Klaussner also stands out as a man torn between his respect for truth and the demands of his superiors, but the remaining Nazi figures are caricatures, as is Klink’s brutish Erich. Schüttler can’t quite manage the balance between Elsa’s tolerance of her husband’s mistreatment and her abandon with Georg, but that seems more the fault of the writing than her acting.
In a way “13 Minutes” can be considered a complement to Hirschbiegel’s 2004 film “Downfall,” about Hitler’s last ten days in his Berlin bunker, which ended with the death Elser hoped to achieve nearly six years earlier. It obviously can’t provide the sheer excitement of a picture like Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie,” about the 1944 conspiracy against Hitler that also failed. But though one can imagine a stronger account of Elser’s courageous but doomed effort to rid Germany of the Nazi leadership at a time when doing so might actually have cut World War II short and saved tens of millions of lives, Hirshbiegel’s film, while hardly subtle, honors a man deserving of wider recognition.