13 Minutes: The difference between life and death in Nazi Germany

A- Historical drama
Written by Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer and Fred Breinersdorfer
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel

This spellbinding and sometimes gruesome story about Nazi Germany feels very relevant today. It’s a must see, even though it will probably turn your stomach. No matter how much you like 13 Minutes, you probably won’t want to see it twice.

When we think of attempts on Adolph Hitler’s life, we think of Claus von Stauffenberg and other officers planting a time bomb in 1944. But Georg Elser planted another fruitless time bomb early in the war. His attempt is less well-known, but judging from this dramatization, his story is quite compelling.

As with all narrative films based on actual events, 13 Minutes should be considered a work of fiction. I don’t know how close it is the actual facts, and that does not affect my review.

The English-language title refers to the time bomb that Elser set, and why it didn’t kill its target. The original, German title is Elser.
13 Minutes runs almost two hours.

Elser (Christian Friedel) was a machinist and musician with communist sympathies, but too free-thinking to ever join the party. In the fall of 1939, he planted his bomb in a hall where Hitler was to speak. He was arrested, with incriminating evidence, almost immediately.

The film’s first few minutes are tight and suspenseful, even though we know the outcome. We see Elser plant and set the bomb, try to leave the compound, and get arrested. We know an explosion is coming, but not when.

The bulk of 13 Minutes‘ runtime cuts back and forth between two stories taking place at different times. The gruesome one involves the SS questioning and torturing Elser. There’s no question that he’s guilty, but they want to find out about accomplices. Elser has a tough time convincing them of the truth: he did it all by himself.

The torture scenes are extremely difficult to watch. The filmmakers show us the cruel instruments about to be used. During the actual torture, the camera usually stays on the prisoner’s bloodied face, where we see the emotional reaction to what’s happening.

His main inquisitor (Burghart Klaußner playing an historical figure, Arthur Nebe) seems civilized and at times almost kind. Does he have a spark of humanity left, or is he just playing the good cop? As Elser shows them how he built a bomb by himself, Nebe can’t help but be impressed with this “terrorist.”

Between the inquisition scenes, flashbacks show us Elser’s life from 1932 until he sets out to kill Hitler. These scenes take up the bulk of the film. Most of them concern the love of his life (Katharina Schüttler), a married woman with a brutish, alcoholic bully of a husband. No wonder she falls, illicitly, into the arms of a kind and sensitive musician.

But this is Germany in the 1930s, and politics affect everything. The filmmakers show us how the Nazis slowly closed all forms of resistance and debate, and turned people into either bullies or the bullied. Elser finds it harder and harder to go along with the changes, even while his lover, as horrified as he, insists that there is nothing they can do.

13 Minutes is not a Holocaust film. If someone with no knowledge of the Third Reich saw the picture, they would learn that the Nazis were evil and anti-Semitic, but not genocidal. There are no Jewish characters.

The film made me want to read more about Georg Elser. That’s exactly what this sort of film should do.