David Holmes reunites with Oliver Hirschbiegel as the Downfall director returns to familiar ground, albeit with more mixed results
It is, perhaps, a sound testament to Adolf Hitler’s rank wickedness that he was the target of so many assassination attempts throughout his life. From the time of his ascent to power and eventual dictatorship, the Führer faced myriad determined plots stemming from a number of sources, driven on by the simple central motivation that this was one man whose progress needed to be halted.
The tragic course of world history will show that none of his opponents were successful, Hitler displaying enough wherewithal, if not outright fortune, to survive each attack and pursue his vile designs.
This is the same Hitler, of course, captured with such skill by German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose fascinating Downfall, released in 2004, painted its subject in surprisingly human shades. Now, eleven years on, and with the monumentally terrible Diana stinking up his résumé, Hirschbiegel has returned to familiar ground.
His latest film, 13 Minutes, features Hitler as a character only briefly, yet his shadow lurks over everything, poisoning the narrative, infecting it with a grim foreboding that makes Downfall seem positively joyous in the process. The story here is a fairly simple one that centres on Georg Elser (Christian Friedel), an unassuming carpenter whose solo mission to blow up the Chancellor at Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller beer hall in 1939 nearly yielded the desired result — he missed by the eponymous period of time.
Hirschbiegel concentrates on the motivations behind Elser’s actions, rather than the incident itself, a potentially ruthless plan executed in the opening minutes. The remainder plays out via a series of extended flashbacks that are interspersed with Elser’s brutal interrogation at the hands of state security. It is from these often ordinary sequences that the director mines much of his material and the product is a taut and occasionally absorbing study of one man's everyday existence lived under the jackboot of a despot.
Dark and unrelenting, Hirschbiegel anchors his film in the unsophisticated idyll of rural 1930s Germany. Whereas Downfall took place almost exclusively within the walls of Hitler’s bunker, 13 Minutes winds its way through the lakes and verdant valleys of Elser’s home patch. However pretty the backdrop, there is little to counter the depressing tone, the bright, carefree days of his time as a rakish musician quickly giving way to familial duty, personal strife and the rise of local Nazism.
Friedel serves as a solid leading man with enough layers to render him relatable. His rocky affair with battered house wife Elsa (Katharina Schüttler) — uninteresting for the most part — also suggests that that there was a real person, possessing real weaknesses, beneath the heroic personae granted to him from the distance of time.
Of more interest is the interaction with his torturers, Burghart Klaussner’s Arthur Nebe in particular. Neither an outright idiot nor exhibiting the cruelty of his colleague, Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow), Nebe seems vaguely impressed by Elser, whose sarcastic frankness irritates him at first. Later, it is Nebe who grasps the truth that this perpetrator plotted alone, a fact ignored by his dull superiors.
Unfortunately, it is in discerning the motivations that led to Elser’s actions that Hirschbiegel fails to produce a truly rounded tale. For all his faintly red politics, disapproval of the Nazis’ policies and fear for the future of his nation, none of these factors, on their own or in concert, adequately explain Elser’s decision to pursue so singular a path, a path that would ultimately condemn him to no little pain and suffering. The flashback device illuminates many things; the moment of his transformation from pacifist to bomber is not one of them.
This is a pity given the interesting historical context. Like the men strapping him to bed frames and injecting him with hallucinogenic substances, one is left largely unaware of that vital kernel of truth at the core of Elser’s being.
By the time of an abrupt finale, featuring the tying up of loose ends at the sputtering conclusion to World War II, Elser’s 13 horribly miscalculated minutes carry the enduring impression and that horribly unanswerable what-if quandary. He himself appears somewhat incidental.
13 Minutes runs at Queen’s Film Theatre until August 20.