On November 8, 1939, Johann Georg Elser nearly killed Adolf Hitler. How close he came is reflected in the title of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film 13 Minutes—Elser set a bomb to go off in a Munich beer hall, near the speaking platform where Hitler did indeed appear that night. It exploded on schedule, killing eight people in the process. Unfortunately, none of those people were Hitler, who had left the building somewhat earlier than expected.
Well, that’s history for you. As the German title (Elser: Er hätte die Welt verändert) says, Elser (Christian Friedel) could have changed history. Instead, dense fog meant that Hitler took the train to Munich rather than flying, and thus left the beer hall a little earlier than expected. So Hitler lived and Elser spent the next several years of his life being tortured and interrogated by the Gestapo, confined in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, and finally executed in 1945. Whether Elser worked alone, as portrayed in this film, or was part of a conspiracy, as the Nazis believed, is something we may never know for sure. Either way, he’s no less of a hero—in fact you could make that case that if there were other conspirators, his refusal to name them even after extensive torture, hypnosis, and administration of various drugs including Pervitin (an early form of methamphetamine) makes Elser even more of an heroic figure.
Right up to the time he plants the bomb, Elser seems like a pretty ordinary guy. He grew up in a village near Lake Constance, where he worked as a carpenter, played the accordion, and charmed the ladies, including one notable affair with a married woman (Katharina Schüttler). Things start to change in his peaceful village as the Nazis come to power, however, and Elser becomes involved in a minor way with resistance activities while many of his neighbors begin to parrot anti-Semitic propaganda and shame those who associate with Jews. Still, he seems an unlikely candidate to attempt anything so radical as an assassination, even as we see him is painstakingly building and testing the bomb. And yet, we know that he came very close to accomplishing what he set out to do, which is perhaps a demonstration of the old adage that still waters run deep. Or to be less psychological about it, that you never know what someone may do until they do it.
Elser’s deed is well known, but we know much less about the man and what motivated him. Unfortunately, you won’t learn much more about Elser or his motivations from 13 Minutes, which often feels more like a historical reconstruction of the type you might expect from The History Channel than a character study of a man who came close to altering the course of history. Although it offers more of an intellectual than emotional experience, 13 Minutes is still an enjoyable film, particularly if you are interested in this period of history.
13 Minutes is efficiently directed by Hirschbiegel, who is best known in a positive sense for the Oscar-nominated Downfall (2004), about the Hitler’s last days, and in a negative sense for the 2013 fiasco Diana. All the actors are good, including a strong central performance from Friedel (the school teacher in The White Ribbon), and Judith Kaufmann’s cinematography clearly differentiates between different time periods in Elser’s story. The historical reconstructions are also well done, with production design by Benedict Herforth and Thomas Stammer, costume design by Bettina Marx, and art direction led by Astrid Poesachke. | Sarah Boslaugh