A mere 13 minutes would have changed the world forever, and one of the greatest atrocities in history could have been avoided. In German director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s (Downfall, Das Experiment) newest film, the WWII-centered thriller 13 Minutes (Elser), he tells the true story of how one man, working alone, tried to change the world in 1939 by assassinating Adolf Hitler. The film is by far one of the best tellings of real life heroics enacted during the time period, and it is done so as an homage to a man who went unrecognized for his valiant actions for decades.
The idea of one man acting on his own to assassinate Hitler sounds ludicrous. But the truth is evident, as small-town musician, handy man, and pacifist, Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) did just that. 13 Minutes does not waste any time relaying what he did. The film begins in a dark hallway, a man, who we will come to know as Georg, is experiencing an excruciating amount of pain and suffering as he prepares a bomb. It looks like a clock, and indeed Georg modeled it after one. There are sweat beads all over his face and fear in his eyes. You quite expect him to call in afterwards, or to have a car waiting to whisk him away after he picks himself up off his battered knees and places the heavy cemented wall piece back in place with the bomb tucked away safe inside. There will be no help coming for Georg, because no one knows what he doing—it is exactly how he planned.
It is November 8, 1939, and Hitler is expected to give a speech in Munich, Germany. He will stand right below where Georg has placed the bomb. But Hitler left the building 13 minutes before the bomb went off, and the rest of his story we all know very well. The rest of Georg’s story is what you come to see in 13 Minutes and it is worth every second spent.
Hirschbiegel makes a point to demonstrate what made Georg an unlikely freedom fighter by venturing back in time to display Hitler’s rise to power and how it coincided with the life Georg led. His friends were fighting against Hitler, only to become prisoners forced to work in the factories. His family and neighbors were starving, their livelihoods not that of which the Führer promised. The slowly creeping hatred of Jews is not forgotten, or overlooked, but only as it happened in Georg’s life space. We learn of the love of Georg’s life, Elsa played by Katharina Schüttler, and how he does everything he can to protect her after his capture. This is not a movie about the overall impact Hitler had on a people, but of one person amidst others.
13 Minutes is not going to provide a lengthy history lesson on Hitler’s rule or WWII. It aims to show the story of a man who made his own choice, and had his own unselfish reasons for not wanting Hitler to remain in power, but also how the Reich responded to such. The fact that the Gestapo could not reconcile, or accept, that Georg acted alone is where the real thrill of the film comes. It is enjoyable to see how Georg lived his life before the assassination attempt but it is much more interesting to watch him be tortured, manipulated, and repeatedly called a liar when in fact he is telling the truth. The thing about the Gestapo is that they loved their propaganda, and it did not make for a good story in the press to admit that one man was able to almost kill the Führer.
The greatness of Georg is in how he did confess to his actions. He even built a blueprint of the bomb to prove he made it, and allowed them to photograph him alongside it for documentation sake. In 13 Minutes we find Georg was not trying to become a martyr, he was merely acting as a free human being who wanted to do what was right. He was not a socialist, a communist, or part of any other group. Georg was “just free.” 13 Minutes manages to tell his story by creating a portrait of a man whom you realize was only doing what he felt was right, and without outside influence or promises of grandeur.
13 Minutes at all times feels very honest and forthcoming, without lifting Georg up to heights where he should be worshipped. You leave the theater feeling that you have witnessed an important story, and the emotions it implores on you come without force. Hirschbiegel has created in 13 Minutes an outstanding portrait of how a man’s convictions can set him on a path few would have the courage to tread, and Friedel’s commandeering performance makes it a movie one should not pass up an opportunity to watch.
13 Minutes was screened at the 2015 Edinburgh International Film Festival as part of the Directors’ Showcase. More information may be found on the festival’s designated film page: 13 Minutes.