What if you had the opportunity to kill Adolf Hitler at the start of the Second World War at the rise of his power? But what if you missed your chance by a mere few minutes? That is the premise of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s (Downfall) 13 Minutes, based on the true story of Georg Elser: a German carpenter turned resistance fighter, whose attempt to assassinate Hitler was faulted by a mistimed bomb.
When Elser’s (Christian Friedel) plan fails and he is captured attempting to cross the border, he is taken into custody by Gestapo Chief Heinrich Muller (Johann con Bulow) and Criminal Police Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner). While at first unwilling to cooperate and continuing to profess the dangers of Hitler’s regime, he soon finds that their torturous ways can be rather convincing.
Interspersed between his interrogations are flashbacks of Elser’s life, giving a greater sense of what the Nazi’s have truly taken. The majority of the film deals with his affections for the married Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), with whom he has a torrid love affair, and their attempt to manoeuvre through a world in which they have ever diminishing control. Both give strong performances and are fairly charming in their romance from start to finish.
While for the most part entertaining, the continued flashbacks of Elser’s life leading up to the attempted assassination play off as being rather inconsequential. The at times forced love story of Elser and Elsa provides some insight into his motivations but ultimately has little effect or relevance to his time under arrest. Elsa fails to even make much of an appearance during the present timeline apart from when she is taken into custody and then a few later mentions, which feels like wasted opportunities for drama.
At times it seems that the love story really only exists so that there is one, and more so to simply remind the audience that Georg Elser was in fact a human being. Little happens through Elser’s life that couldn’t have been expressed in a much more streamlined manner, allowing the focus to linger longer on the more meatier parts of the plot. The most interesting scenes of the film occur in the present, but tend to be erroneously skipped or glossed over, especially towards the end, which includes his time spent in a concentration camp where he mysteriously seems to receive unexplained privileges.
In addition, Elser never quite seems to be completely invested in anything throughout the film, whether it be his relationship with Elsa or his commitment to the Resistance. He seems to slide in and out of infatuations throughout and while it’s possible Hirschbiegel purposely wanted to bring a sense of Elser discovering a reason to “fight” through these changes, it would be entirely possible to view his investment in the assassination as an almost passing phase.
The real question of 13 Minutes is directed more towards it’s purpose: why Elser’s story? And why specifically a biopic of his entire life versus a focus on his more remarkable exploits? The premise is somewhat anecdotal and there never seems to be a clear agenda made throughout apart from perhaps humanising those Germans opposed to the Nazi Regime. Yet the film does deliver its story in an understated way though, that never feels as if it is overly manipulating or force-feeding sentimentality down the audience’s throats, which is somewhat of a rarity as a Holocaust film.
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