13 Minutes Christian Friedel, Katharina Schüttler, Burghart Klaussner. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Rated R. Opens Friday at Village Square.
In 2004, German filmmaker Oliver Hirschbiegel made one of the definitive World War II movies with the Oscar-nominated Downfall, a bleak look at the final days of Adolf Hitler and his inner circle. Hirschbiegel followed that movie’s success with a few troubled English-language productions, but with 13 Minutes he’s returned to his native country for another true story about World War II. 13 Minutes isn’t as powerful as Downfall or as stark, taking on more of a typical biopic structure in telling the story of Georg Elser, a German carpenter and musician who made a one-man attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1939. Obviously Elser’s attempt failed, and the movie gets that out of the way at the beginning, with the explosion in a meeting hall taking place offscreen.
Elser’s bomb ended up killing eight bystanders but no high-ranking Nazi officials, as Hitler had cut his speech short and left the building 13 minutes before the bomb went off (hence the movie’s English-language title). The bulk of the movie switches back and forth between Elser’s brutal interrogation and torture at the hands of the Nazis and his initially peaceful but increasingly troubled life leading up to the bombing. Christian Friedel gives a sympathetic and layered performance as Elser, whether sticking to his principles despite painful torture or quietly witnessing the unsettling rise of Nazism in a country he no longer recognizes. Friedel also does his best with the movie’s love story, a romance between Elser and a married woman with an abusive husband, but Hirschbiegel and the two screenwriters never make an effective connection between that relationship and Elser’s later political actions.
The flashbacks humanize Elser a bit, especially as the Nazis do all they can to erase his humanity, showing how a patriotic German with no ties to persecuted minorities still felt compelled to act against the rise of Nazism. Despite Elser’s grim real-life end, 13 Minutes is a more hopeful counterpoint to Hirschbiegel’s harsh portrayal of his homeland in Downfall, and a welcome homecoming for its director.