13 Minutes: Nazis still evil, torture still horrible

By Liam Lacey

A small-town carpenter, musician and playboy decides he has to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 13 Minutes, a jarringly brutal, but otherwise conventional historical drama from director, Oliver Hirschbiegel (best known for his 2004 HItler drama, Downfall).

Co-scripted by Fred Breinersdorfer (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days), this the latest of a series of films focusing on German resistance to the Nazi regime.

But it’s more like the 2008 Tom Cruise vehicle, Valkyrie, rather than wish-fulfillment fantasy like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.  13 Minutes falls under the category of “fact-based,” though with the comforting moral clarity of fiction.

Christian Friedel is the non-Nazi in this picture. See if you can spot him

Christian Friedel is the non-Nazi in this picture. See if you can spot him

The film begins promisingly with the pace of a well-staged thriller. The movie opens on Nov. 8, 1939, when 36-year-old Georg Elser (an appealing Christian Friedel)  sets a timed dynamite bomb in a column behind the lectern in a Munich beer hall where Hitler (Udo Schenk) is scheduled to speak. Shortly after, Elser gets captured on his way to the Swiss border and is taken tothe head of the police force, Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaußner), and Gestapo chief Heinrich Mueller (Johann von Bülow).

He learns that the bomb detonated, killing eight people, but not Hitler, who had left the hall early.

Then the police begin to interrogate him, and 13 Minutes undergoes a grim personality change.  Director Steven Soderbergh once said that, the problem with shooting sex scenes is that the moment actors take off their clothes in film, it turns into a documentary. 

That might even be more true for torture scenes. We watch as Esler is handcuffed face-down to a boxspring, stripped, beaten, and forced to endure heated metal rods driven under his nails. This is all in the effort to extract a false confession, naming non-existent collaborators “for the press.” Surely a forgery would have been faster. The scene is nightmarish, but apart from establishing that Nazis were evil and torture is hideous, does nothing to serve the story beyond establishing Esler’s courage.

The rest of the film moves schematically between scenes of the interrogation and flashbacks of Esler’s life in his Southwest German hometown of Koenigsbronn. We start in 1932, shortly after Georg returns home to care for his mother and alcoholic father. Playing accordion at a local dance, he catches the eye of an attractive hausfrau, Elsa (Katharina Schüttler). She s married to an abusive drinker (Rüdiger Klink). An undeterred Elser jokes to his fellow musicians that married women are the best kind to fool around with, but then he falls for her in earnest

The series of flashbacks build romantic sympathy for Georg but also show the inexorable progression of the Nazi influence in town. Unionists and socialist supporters are first ostracized, then sent to forced labour camps, while Georg - an apolitical libertarian - watches from the sidelines. We have little insight on what triggered him to become a radical, or why the Nazi fever infected the town, which seems distinguished by its pretty Alpine views anddisproportionate population of angry drunks.

There’s a flicker of dramatic complexity in the less rabid interrogation scenes – mainly in the relationship between Elser and the police chief, Nebe (played by the fine actor Klaussner as a “good German” who follows orders without fanaticism and eventually pays for it).

But too many questions are glossed over in the film’s post-script (which involves the fate of both Elser and Elsa).

13 Minutes: Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Written by Fred Breinersdorfer, and Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer. Starring Christian Friedel, Katharina Schuettler, and Burghart Klaussner.  13 Minutes can be seen at Canada Square cinemas at Yonge and Eglinton.

Liam Lacey

Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather