13 Minutes (Elser)
Recently, after signing up with the film site Letterboxed, I thought about what I would put in my “Top 5″ film list. Not in a ranking, but just what five films would I consider the best I have seen (Letterboxed actually only gives you room for four in your basic profile, which I found quite odd). Leaving aside the general trilogy, Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship Of The Ring would make it. George Lucas’ A New Hope would be up there too. Joss Whedon’s Serenity would find a comfortable niche and with some thought, Coppola’s The Godfather, while almost a cliché choice, would also probably rise above others.
The last spot could go to any number of films I suppose, but after putting some thought into it, it had to be Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, or Der Untergang, his haunting portrayal of the final days of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime in 1945. It’s weird how the internet meme inspired by the film has become better known than the film itself, which is an absolutely astounding depiction of the world’s most infamous man and his last days, as Berlin crumbles under Soviet assault around him. Bruno Ganz’ performance, the visceral atmosphere created, the contrast between the dark and light aspects of humanity, the direction, the music and the wholehearted commitment to showing just what the fall of such an empire was like: Downfall is a singular film, which has an amazing ability to leave the viewer wrecked emotionally.
You would think that Hirschbiegel was poised to really make a name for himself, but his three offerings after Der Untergang – a disappointing remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an intense but regrettably unknown Troubles drama Five Minutes of Heaven and the widely panned Diana biopic – have not exactly set the world on fire. But now, Hirschbiegel has gone back to Hitler’s Germany, to that territory where he worked up something so wonderful, to tell another story of the Third Reich and its people. Is 13 Minutes, in aiming to shine a light on the German resistance to Hitler, up to the standard of Downfall, or is Hirschbiegel a real flash in the pan director?
In 1939, a bomb meant to kill Adolph Hitler goes off 13 minutes too late. The bomb-maker, a carpenter/musician named Georg Elser (Christian Friedel), is apprehended soon after, and subjected to brutal interrogation by the Nazi authorities, demanding to know who he did it with and why. But Elser acted alone and, in the course of numerous flashbacks on his life under the Nazi jackboot, he begins to expand on why.
For me, the story of 13 Minutes is about answering a simple question: Why did Georg Elser do what he did? Staying firmly fixed on Elser throughout its running time, with his target being just a briefly glimpsed figure in the opening minutes (I believe dubbed over with actual audio of the real Hitler, a clever move), Hirschbiegel looks at Elser’s possible motivations through three different aspects of his life and experience: the political, the moral and the personal.
Elser is strangely apolitical for much of 13 Minutes, lending support to the communist cause in a limited sense, but never actively espousing its philosophy with any real vigour. He is drawn into conflict between left and right leaning elements in Hitler’s Germany during the 30’s, but it’s all just a sideshow. It may seem astounding that somebody with such little genuine political feeling could go as far as try and murder the leader of the country, killing eight innocents – as far as devout Nazi’s were innocent – in the process. Part of the drama of the film is how the authorities are unwilling to accept that this “lone wolf” could take a shot at the beloved leader, insisting over and over again, in the face of all evidence, that he must have been acting with subversive internal elements or in concert with foreign governments. For the Nazi’s, Elser’s act is an unfortunate reality, that not everybody in Germany is singing to the same hymn sheet, and such an individualistic act of defiance is almost more to be feared than any imagined fifth column.
On the moral side, Elser is shown to be somewhat of a religious man, turning to prayer in moments of stress and always keeping his attack on Hitler within the scope of the “greater good”: that the murder of Hitler and however many of his flunkies that are around him when the bomb goes off is a small price to pay to avert a war that will leave Germany and its people in ruins, if not exterminated. Elser’s logic has its strengths, but I did feel that Hirschbiegel was somewhat remiss when discussing this aspect of Elser’s life. At times he appears to be not entirely devout, at others he is almost priest-like. There is a lack of consistency that may be intentional: but lacking any firm elaboration on Elser’s religious beliefs and how much they drove him on, this part of his character is, for me, frustratingly limited.
It doesn’t take a religious martyr to see that the Nazi regime was an immoral one from its top to its bottom, and the way that Elser was shown to be waking up to this – witnessing the persecution of the faithful, the shaming of Jews and their friends, the growing number of “forced labourers” toiling themselves to death in factories – while a necessary facet of any story like this, did not enthral me in the same way that Downfall did, maybe because they are plot beats to be expected. The likes of Europa Europa, Berlin 36, The Pianist and Toyland are various examples of other cinematic works that have done the same thing to different extents, and a certain staleness is thus evident. It might seem as if I am being too numb to the crimes of the Nazi regime, but I’m just trying to explain why these sections of the 13 Minutes didn’t resonate with me as strongly as they might have.
Hirschbiegel decides that the majority of Elser’s motivation, the part that he wants to explore the most, must be the personal, through Elser’s relationship with Elsa, a married woman from his home town that he conducts an affair with, played with great humanity and life by Katharina Schuttler. The scenes featuring the two are long and drawn out (maybe to too much of an extent, inflating the running time past what would have been a more appetizing length) , but they serve the purpose of portraying a young man frustrated with many parts of his life: his self-destructive family, the close-mindedness of his neighbours and society’s lack of understanding for the love shared by him and Elsa. It’s almost cliché as Elser rants about the unfairness of what the society of Nazi Germany expects of them, and his strike at Hitler can almost be seen as an extension of this, not just a blow to the particular evil of the Nazi state, but against the way that the world is. The plot with Elsa is a meandering disjointed thing, that robs 13 Minutes of a lot of its momentum I feel, but it does give us the best look at the kind of “warts and all” depiction of Elser that Hirschbiegel is going for.
Because Georg Elser was an asshole, let no one be under any illusions about that. Beyond his attempted killing of Hitler and his bravado-filled resistance to the brutal Nazi interrogation, the Elser we see in 13 Minutes is not a particularly nice guy. He’s a flagrant and uncaring womaniser, who has already left one woman with a bastard child by the time he gets back to his hometown and doesn’t wait too long before gleefully getting into an adulterous affair with a married woman. The two seem to have a genuine connection, but long before 13 Minutes reaches its climax, you begin to see the signs that Elser is a serial “love them and leave them” kind of guy, happy in the intense rush of romance but rather finicky and unreliable in dealing with the consequences. By not flinching from showing Elser in this way, Hirschbiegel does raise 13 Minutes up to a point that it might otherwise have struggled to reach, and Friedel’’s performance, strong through-out if not quite Bruno Ganz level, is probably at its best as he vacillates between being the suave lothario and the deadbeat absentee father and lover.
All these various strands of flashback pivot around Elser in 1939, his interrogation at the hands of cruel Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller (the creepily intense Johann von Bulow) and the more sympathetic Germany Army Colonel Arthur Nebe (the great Burghart Klaußner), a good cop/bad cop duo that really add a great deal of verve and tension to the “present day” scenes. There is brutality and horror to spare at these moments, and portions of 13 Minutes are not for the faint of heart, though they make some powerful statements. A scene depicting a prison secretary, calmly waiting outside the interrogation room and reading a book while Elser’s screams fill the air is one of the most poignant visual metaphors for the citizenry of Nazi Germany and their willing acquiescence that I have ever seen on screen.
But more interesting than that was the progression of the interrogation, which turns from being a primitive beat-down of Elser’s psyche into something else entirely, as the Nazi authorities become almost fascinated by the details of Elser’s plot, but always with that barely restrained edge of tyrannical power, obsessed as much with the popular perception of Elser’s act as to the manner in which it was carried out. Elser begins his custody fully expecting to be shot at any moment, and any uninitiated students of history are bound to feel that constant underlying tension that such a thing could come to pass. Both Muller and Nebe want to understand why Elser did what he did, and one cannot help but see the cracks form in their own, previously cast-iron, faith in the Nazi system as their interactions with Elser continue. Muller, one of the worst of the worst, is beyond all hope, but Hirschbiegel effectively makes us take a close look at Nebe, and wonder if he is as devout as he might proclaim to be.
As a character study, 13 Minutes is a success then, insofar as it presented a three dimensional figure, not quite a fully fledged hero, not quite a villain in his personal life, but a human being who found himself at the middle of extraordinary circumstances. A strong script, that loses nothing in the translation and reliance on subtitles, helps give Elser the right kind of voice, whether he is seducing women on a lakeside beach in happier times or essentially dictating his last will and testament. It would have been all too easy for a hero worship exercise to be undertaken here, akin to the palatable but not exactly stellar Valkyrie of 2008, which was almost a heist film with a Hollywood action hero vibe to its central focus. Instead, 13 Minutes is a fuller project, that does lag at times in its fixation on Elser’s past and his romantic relationships, but does succeed in the effort at making the audience really think about how worthy of praise Elser was.
While Hirschbiegel might be hit and miss in terms of success, his skill as a director is unquestionable. 13 Minutes lives and breathes with numerous moments of great visual power. I’ve already mentioned that hallway scene, but he has a way of constructing many sequences to really make what is happening in them get inside your head. Early on, the recurring “Sieg Heil’s” delivered to Hitler by a packed auditorium of adoring bootlickers booms around your ears, seductive and repulsive in equal terms, as we gaze down from on high like somebody pushing to the front of the rafters. The practicalities of Nazi torture, from the all too evident tools of the trade that Elser is forced to contemplate to the bowl purposefully left on the floor to catch the inevitable spew of pain-driven vomit make the experience all the more visceral. The cramped confines of Elser’s dank cell, lit by searing bright light and covered in vague graffiti of hominoid forms provide a contrast between humanity and Nazi inhumanity. Late on, a hanging scene is given a grisly but necessary length, so that we can see and understand once more the cold detached operating procedure of the Third Reich, the camera squarely set on the dangling and shuddering legs of the unfortunate victim. And, in the same vein as Steve McQueen with Chewital Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave, Hirschbiegel frequently just puts Friedel directly in front of the lens and allows him the opportunity to stare out at the audience, most notably in the final shots, both seeking sympathy and understanding, as well as perhaps challenging: in a strange way, I was reminded of Mark Miller’s Wanted, adapted by Timur Bekmambetov in 2008, and it’s closing message to the audience: “What the fuck have you done lately?”
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-The breakdown of Elser’s relationship with Elsa, signified by his cold reaction to the birth of their child – an insistence that he has to go to work, rather than hold him for even a moment – really marks out the real Elser, a man terrified of any binding commitment, and rushing headlong into a suicidal plot to kill Hitler. The subsequent scene at the cemetery, where Elsa refuses to hold Elser’s hand, was heartbreaking.
-The scene where Elser takes part in staged propaganda pictures, showing him cooperating with his interrogators, was a potent example of how the Nazi’s, obsessed with framing everything in their way, went about displaying Elser to the nation, almost like an attraction at a zoo. But always there is the constant possibility of violence, as the end of that scene showed vividly. There’s almost a feeling of embarrassment from Muller and Nebe as Elser gets up from his assault silently, blood streaming down his nose, as if he is challenging those present to continue taking the photographs and show the country what Nazi justice is really like.
-I was actually a bit disappointed by the turn of the secretary by the end, as she becomes more and more openly sympathetic to Elser’s plight. I felt like she was a powerful metaphor for the German people in the 1930’s, and her sympathy for Elser by the end of the film ruined that impression a little.
-The trippy drug sequence was a well put together segment, the final example of how the Nazi’s were willing to do anything, up to the point of chemical manipulation, other than admit that a single member of the citizenry could get as far mentally and practically in trying to kill Adolph Hitler.
-Muller is never convinced by Elser, reacting with stone faced anger to his claims that Hitler is bad for Germany, matched by some of his superiors who inflict random violence on the accused. But Nebe, later to be caught up in the July 20th plot, clearly has more time for him, and 13 Minutes very subtly draws the line between the Elser interrogation and Nebe’s later activities.
-It ends badly for Nebe of course, and his execution scene, a reminder of how easily the Third Reich could turn on people it previously placed in positions of high power, was gruesome and effective. Muller watches passively on as Nebe is treated to a terrible and undignified end, any trace of their previous relationship long gone. Muller vanished at the end of World War II, and his exact fate has never been properly ascertained. You really hope the bastard got his though.
-Elser is not immediately executed after his final confession, and instead is kept alive, a sword of Damocles over his head, just so he can witness the outcome of his perceived failure: the ruination of Germany, illustrated by the sight of bombs falling on nearby cities. It’s the most cruel and ironic of Nazi punishments: they considered Elser a madman for thinking that Hitler would lead Germany into catastrophe, and his fate is to be detained and forced to witness this very eventuality.
-The turnaround in Elser’s treatment – respectfully regarded by a maimed prison guard, who gleefully tells Elser of his recent acceptance into a musical school – is the last sign that his argument has won out. By then disillusionment with the Nazi regime was almost total, and the Third Reich was in its last gasps. But Elser, despite this apparent victory, remains defeated, simply waiting for an end he can’t escape.
-The Nazi’s, spiteful and self-destructive to the end, extinguish Elser’s life before he can be liberated, the would be assassin accepting his fate stoically, long since numbed to the possibility. The final shots are evocative, Elser looming into your eyes and asking questions of you and your life.
-Hirschbiegel is still set on the relationship with Elsa though, the final words going to her subsequent life and inability to “get over” her one true love. That was a little forced, and I feel like a simple acknowledgement that she survived the war and was able to make a life for herself would have been enough.
-If I had to make another comparison, it would be to Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, both films about singular figures in World War II, telling their stories in an interrogation room while facing extreme censure for their supposed crimes. I think I did prefer The Imitation Game a bit more, with its larger story and better supporting cast, but 13 Minutes gives it a run for its money, showcasing individual genius and commitment from the other side of the war.
-So, what if Elser’s plot had succeeded? It’s a tantalising question of counterfactual history, the decapitation of Nazi Germany at the very beginning of the Second World War. Who would have taken power? Would the military have established control? Would there have been Civil War? Would Elser’s aim of avoiding a larger European conflagration have been achieved, or was the fighting, already underway, inevitably going to escalate? Its fun to think on the “What if?” of it all, but we can’t go too far down that road.
13 Minutes isn’t up to the standard of Downfall, lacking the same gargantuan performance in its lead, the same creation of atmosphere, the same emotional power. But it is in no way a bad film, and for a director like Hirschbiegel, that is an important thing. His last effort at biopic was a disaster, but this is much stronger fare, a portrayal of a figure who has been senselessly sidelined in modern remembrance of the “German resistance” in favour of the more traditionally heroic figures like Count Von Stauffenburg, whose overall aims in their plots were far murkier and unappealing, if you care to look into them. Elser, a poor father, a worse partner and a man with conflicting passions and drives, is a much more interesting figure to explore, as 13 Minutes tries to answer the question over his defining act. In the end, there is no single answer, but the journey is an effective exploration at the same time, a character portrait of high quality, for a subject that truly deserves it. Do I think Elser was a hero, after watching 13 Minutes? I think the answer can only be a firm “Maybe” and I do think that this reflects quite well on the film.
A strong central figure, a strong take on his life, a strong cast and strong direction: Hirschbiegel has done very well here. 13 Minutes is a film to engage and a film to entertain, more in line with the director’s talents than most of his intervening work since Der Untergang. I see little indication that it will win the same international recognition of that film, which is a shame, because there is much to enjoy and ponder here, a proper biopic that presents divergent sides of its subject and shines a light on a too often ignored or dismissed facet of Nazi history. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of NFP Distribution).