13 minutes
What strategies are best when opposing a dictatorship? A co-ordinated mass reaction by the populace would be an ideal response. The trouble is, such an ideal sometimes doesn’t happen. In these cases it is left up to small groups or individuals to act. That is not easy, given the control and resources of oppression open to a totalitarian regime. So what motivates an individual to actually go against the tide of support, apathy and repression and do something substantive in opposition? The movie ’13 Minutes’ (2014) directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, sets out to answer this question in a real life character study of Georg Elser. He was responsible for an attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler.

The movie opens in an effective, tense style. There is a series of close-ups of Elser (Christian Friedel) preparing to plant his home-made bomb in a wall of the hall where Hitler is due to speak to his veteran supporters. We hear him breathing heavily, the bomber sweats and grazes his knees while preparing his work. The high tension soundtrack complements this superbly. From there we see Elser’s capture soon after the bomb has gone off. By an unfortunate twist of fate the main target had left the hall 13 minutes before it was detonated. Elser is taken in for interrogation and torture. Apart from an ill-considered piece of cinematic surrealism towards the end of the film (when Elser is injected with hallucinogenic drugs) and a few minor elements of symbolism, the movie settles for a conventional treatment alternating between the interrogation room and flashbacks of his life prior to the attack. The latter is handled by an idyllic sound and colour combination, in contrast to the drabness of the former.

The flashback scenes are crucial for telling us who Elser was and what motivated him. Georg was from a poor rural background, a carpenter, an amateur musician and a womaniser. He liked the simple things in life. The danger in this from an acting point of view, is that he could so easily be portrayed as not just a simple man but a simpleton. Friedel masterfully avoids this through body and eye movements that show a natural, un-tutored intelligence within the character. He is asked by a Nazi interrogator what on earth would possess him to try and kill the great Fuhrer. Georg responds in a clear declarative way that it was just necessary because it was the right thing to do and that Hitler can only bring ultimate destruction to Germany. The interrogator, who began by ranting that the prisoner is paranoid, obviously doesn’t agree with Elser but sees the conviction behind the statement is simple, yet sincere. This prisoner isn’t mad. This becomes even more evident when Hitler’s own somewhat insane belief that Elser is acting as part of a wider conspiracy, is shown by further investigation not to fit the facts. He has the ability to make a sophisticated device and to formulate his plan and obtain the necessary materials without any exterior help.

Where did this conviction come from though? What makes Elser interesting is that he doesn’t fit into easy categories. When arrested he is wearing a Communist badge and says he is doing so out of belief. In flashback we see him hanging out with Communist friends who get into a brawl with the village Nazis. Georg doesn’t participate in the fight. He’s more interested in a woman in the bar and tells his mates that fighting doesn’t achieve anything. Later he helps them daub slogans on a wall at a time when this was dangerous. When in power, the local Nazis round up his pals. One of the Stormtroopers asks his boss whether Elser should also be taken in and is told that he isn’t a Communist Party member, so won’t be included. Later, one of his erstwhile friends briefly escapes from a camp and Elser (who is having an affair with the wife of a local Nazi) takes a great risk in helping him. As Hitler’s power is consolidated and the Nazis’ expansionist intentions become clearer, the future destruction of Germany he later mentions, comes sharply into focus in the protagonist’s mind and he realises he needs to act.

Elser was at best a fellow traveller, hardly a party hack. Something that would be a complete anathema to a true materialist, is any spiritual belief. Yet we are shown a scene of Georg with his family on the way to church, being taunted by Hitler Youth. When in prison Elser falls to his knees and pays homage to a fellow carpenter by offering the Lord’s Prayer and it is clear this gives him comfort.

Summing up all these factors, what can we say about this man? The movie highlights the reality that people are often full of contradictions and have aspects that aren’t commendable. However, they are ultimately capable of courageous and well-intended deeds. They form ideas incrementally and from lots of sources. In the end, Georg Elser is probably best thought of as a flawed humanitarian, the sort who swims against the tide because it is in his nature. The film also reminds us that even in heavily restrictive political environments, the individual sometimes retains agency to act. While this falls short of the ideal collective response required to bring down an entire structure, it could be argued that a lone action can sometimes play a constructive tactical role. At the very least, this movie contributes in its own small way to that debate.

13 Minutes doesn’t break new ground cinematically and in recent decades there have been a number of films covering individual plots against Hitler. Nevertheless, Friedel’s solid acting and Hirschbiegel’s generally straight-forward, non-flashy directing make Georg Elser’s story a creditable addition to the sub-genre.