‘13 Minutes’ that failed to change history make taut thriller

Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) plants the bomb he hopes will kill Hitler, in ‘13 Minutes.’Photo: Bernd Schuller/Sony Pictures Classics

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

We all know that attempts were made to assassinate Adolf Hitler in Germany late during World War II. But what if he had been assassinated in November 1939? Think how history would have changed, particularly for Jews.

Such an assassination attempt actually was made by a lone man using a time bomb planted at a beer hall where Hitler was scheduled to speak. Hitler did speak as planned. But he cut his remarks short and left with his top officials an unlucky 13 minutes before the bomb went off as designed, killing several people.

“13 Minutes” tells the story of that assassination attempt and Georg Elser, the man who built and planted the bomb. The German-language drama unfolds like a thriller under the direction of Oliver Hirschbiegel, perhaps best known for “Downfall,” the 2004 Oscar-nominated drama about Hitler’s final days in his Berlin bunker. 

The film features superb acting, evocative and gripping storytelling, and fine photography by cinematographer Judith Kaufmann that captures the atmosphere and period details of the small rural town where Elser grew up.

Like “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” this fact-based historical drama spotlights a non-Jewish German who opposed Hitler and his ideas on moral grounds and had the courage to act on those ideals. In the case of Elser, his decision to act had a more personal basis than an ideological one. 

Rather than using the conventional “ticking bomb” approach, “13 Minutes” begins with the assassination attempt and Elser’s capture, and then recounts earlier events in his life through flashbacks as he is interrogated. Elser is played by Christian Friedel, who also starred in Michael Haneke’s award-winning “White Ribbon.” 

Friedel portrays Elser as a lovable rogue, emphasizing his free-loving nature as well as his strong sense of justice and fairness. A carpenter, handyman and musician with a reputation as a ladies’ man, Elser grew up in a village in Swabia, a region in southwestern Germany. Like many there, Elser sympathized with the local Communist Party although he was not a member. While the people of his little village were lured in by the Nazis’ promises of prosperity and paved roads, Elser was not.

As the Nazi influence seeped into the village, anti-Semitic signs and deeds grew, and Friedel shows us Elser’s growing disgust and unease. When Hitler moves toward war, Elser can stand no more and begins his plan to kill the Fuhrer. 

The assassination attempt was made in Munich on Nov. 8, 1939, during Hitler’s annual speech commemorating the Beer Hall Putsch, his failed coup attempt in 1923. Elser was stopped by German police while trying to cross into Switzerland, and he eventually was linked to the bomb. 

Hitler, believing the attempt on his life was part of a conspiracy, dispatched the head of Berlin’s Criminal Police, Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner), and the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow), to handle the interrogation. 

The film details Elser’s careful planning and patient, exacting preparations in secret. Visiting Munich and the hall where Hitler gives his annual speech, Elser finds the perfect spot for the bomb and takes detailed measurements. In the economic hard times of the 1930s, Elser had held a number of jobs and picked up an array of practical skills. His job in a factory gearing up to produce munitions gave him access to explosives. 

Friedel conveys Elser’s focus and work ethic in his painstakingly precise work, and one cannot help but be impressed by his inventiveness and determination.

Friedel’s fine performance is well supported by the rest of the cast. As Elser’s real-life lover, Elsa, Katharina Schüttler adds a little touching romance to the story. Klaussner and von Bülow brilliantly bring out the casual cruelty of the Nazis in their roles as Elser’s interrogators.  

“13 Minutes” is a well acted, gripping historical drama about a little-known Nazi resister. The film reminds viewers both of the role of chance in history and the importance of those who have the courage to act in the face of evil.