Now that the geeks have inherited the Earth, infantilising our appreciation of art and culture, petulantly hooting “Spoiler!” at the tiniest revelation of plot detail, you should probably look away now as I’m about to reveal a fundamental plot element of Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes that may spoil the film for you.
13 Minutes is not comic-book fantasy revisionism like Tarantino’s execrable war porn Inglorious Basterds, rewriting history to blow Hitler to bits. Instead it’s a rather po-faced and reverent treatment of would-be assassin Georg Elser’s ill-fated attempt to kill the Fuhrer on the eve of World War 2 by blowing up a Munich beer hall during a Nazi rally on November 8, 1939 – an attempt that failed when Hitler cut short his speech and left the hall, Elser’s bomb exploding just 13 minutes later.
It’s not much of a spoiler though. Hirschbiegel’s film perversely opens with the final preparations for that fateful night, Friedel’s driven Elser packing a pillar behind Hitler’s lectern with homemade explosives and setting an intricate time bomb before hotfooting it to the Swiss border where he’s caught trying to sneak across the frontier and detained by suspicious border guards. When his bomb fails to kill Hitler and his underlings, Elser quickly becomes the number one suspect, any sense of suspense or tension the opening has built quickly dissipating as the film settles down into a series of wholly predictable flashbacks to Elser’s growing disaffection with the Nazi regime framed by scenes of his brutal interrogation by Nazi Police Chief Arthur Nebe (Klaussner) and Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller (von Bulow), Elsa (Schuttler), the unhappily married woman (brutalised by a drunken and sadistic husband) he loves and leaves an all to obvious metaphor for his country’s brutalisation under the Nazis.
Aptly around 13 minutes longer than it needs to be, 13 Minutes represents something of a return to form for Hirschbiegel, director of Das Experiment and YouTube favourite Downfall after the frankly horrendous Diana. Handsomely shot with uniformly good performances, its biggest problem is the script by father/daughter team Fred and Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer which never really feels like it gets under Elser’s skin. Which is disappointing, Breinsdorfer Sr having previously written the excellent Sophie Scholl, echoes of that earlier film present in the film’s interrogation scenes and its paranoid sense of a sickening society.
But unlike Sophie Scholl, it’s a little too obvious, too black and white, the Nazis simply caricatured villains while Elser, rightfully recognised as a hero now with streets and schools named after him, was perhaps a far more ambiguous character than this film allows. A classic lone assassin in the Oswald tradition, motivated as much by disaffection and alienation, the desire to prove himself special, as he was by any sense of personal morality or righteousness, while a scene that juxtaposes the eventual fates of Elser and Nebe (one of the Operation Valkyrie conspirators, ironically executed by Muller in the wake of the failed 1944 coup) feels particularly ill-judged.
Unsubtle and overly sentimental, 13 Minutes lacks nuance and fails to do justice to its complex hero.