Berlinale — ‘Elser’ (’13 Minutes’)

The Man Who Almost Killed Hitler

13 Minutes

Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel, Germany, 2015, 100 minutes

At the Berlin International Film Festival

13 Minutes by Oliver Hirschbiegel was one of the most anticipated films of the Berlinale. Since the title tells you nothing about the film —  a problem that its US distributor, Sony Classics, might address – 13 Minutes, known as Elser in Germany, is the story of Georg Elser, who tried to kill Hitler in October 1939 with a sophisticated homemade bomb.

Let’s Hope It Works – Christian Friedel as Georg Elser

The title comes from the fact that Hitler left a gathering where he spoke 13 minutes before the bomb exploded. He lived, and the world suffered.

After Many Torture Sessions, Elser Confesses

Hirschbiegel is a dramatic Hitlerologist, although he followed the apocalyptic Downfall (2004), about the Fuhrer’s last days with a film about Princess Diana, an extreme turn as ever from Nazi overload. Yet this time he has gone far down the fascist food chain, focusing on a brave and lone opponent to the Nazis (who has communist friends, while not joining the party) and on the Nazis who interrogate, torture and punish him once he’s caught. Elser, whose name few of us might have known before, is not a parade of Nazi stars as it begins with Elser’s carefully planned gambit and then takes us through his wrenching ordeal as a prisoner. He’s never far away from instruments of torture.

Christian Friedel portrays Elser as a stubborn idiosyncratic man of honor in the screenplay by Fred Breinersdorfer and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer. He’s a bit of a clown and a loner with an eye for the ladies, particularly Elsa, a village girl who is married to a local bully. Yet try as Nazi police officials do to pry the lines of a conspiracy out of George, there isn’t one – “the Fuhrer demands the evidence”. Eventually even the hardliners acknowledge that George acted singlehandedly, when he recites the entire plan from memory, with details of how he obtained the “unobtainable” materials.

Elser at His Day Job

13 Minutes unfolds mostly in a town in southwestern Germany – until Elser is caught and punished. We get to see how Nazis took over, how they identified and imprisoned and killed local critics, and how a girl with a Jewish lover is humiliated in the town square. It reminds you that the cooperation of an entire society was required to operate a vast system of terror, from police to schoolchildren. Think of The Nasty Girl, by Michael Verhoeven. The local colors are folkloric, until it all turns to brown uniforms and blood.

As we learn about Elser, there’s a déjà vu feeling that Hirschbiegel and company are looking for that good German, the man who stood up to Hitler.  (In Downfall, those reasonable well-meaning Germans even crawl out of Hitler’s bunker once the raving maniac goes over the edge – so, before those final days, serving Hitler was a reasonable decision? Talk about revisionist history.) So many German films celebrate these brave souls (and many were extraordinarily brave and ended up extraordinarily dead) that there’s a risk of concluding that there were more of them than there were.

Sadly, no.  And in one of the many torture sessions (there’s a gruesome hanging, too), Elser tells his jailers that the technical complexities of his bomb were beyond the capabilities of his co-workers at a local steel mill. “They wouldn’t have helped me, anyway,” he admits.

A Religious Family Stands by Itself

The nuances of a character like Elser and of smalltown life under the Nazis keep 13 Minutes from collapsing under the weight of its moral motivational tale. This is a film that Germans and Americans should see, since moral tales are valuable in showing people what they could be, or could have been. But don’t expect a film for film critics.

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