13 MINUTES, historical drama, rated R, in German with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2 chiles
History is seasoned with what-ifs. A popular television series, The Man in the High Castle, speculates on a world in which the Axis powers won World War II. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s movie, rooted in fact rather than fantasy, looks at an event that, but for a narrow miscalculation of timing, would have disposed of Adolf Hitler before that war got fully up to speed. Hirschbiegel (Downfall) examines the story of Georg Elser (Christian Friedel, The White Ribbon), a German carpenter and clockmaker who built and planted a bomb that came within a scant quarter hour of ridding the world of the Nazi leader in 1939.
The suspense is gone in far less time than that. Over the opening credits, we see a sweating, grunting Elser packing his device into a cranny of a Munich beer hall where the Führer is to speak. The explosives detonate, but the target has escaped. Fair enough. We know from history that it didn’t work out; Hitler left the hall earlier than expected, and the collateral damage was inflicted on a bunch of innocent bystanders.
So the story toggles back and forth between Elser’s arrest and interrogation, and his life and radicalization in the years leading up to the attempt. It builds a portrait of a left-leaning, womanizing free spirit who gradually becomes serious about the fate of his fatherland — and about a woman. She is Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), married to an abusive drunkard. The nation, Germany, is in the grip of an abusive despot.
The interrogation scenes are brutal, graphic, and extended. They feature a good cop-bad cop tandem of police chief Nebe (Burghart Klaussner) and Gestapo heavy Müller ( Johann von Bülow). The torture doesn’t loosen Elser’s tongue. Another tactic does. But what he has to say is not what they, and Hitler, want to hear. Elser acted alone, and no amount of brutalizing can produce a conspiracy that wasn’t there.
The imprisonment and interrogation trigger flashbacks, but they don’t shed enough light on Elser’s progress from carefree hedonist to committed assassin. There’s a lot more in the real history of this story to pique our interest. Elser nearly survived the war in a concentration camp, where the preferential treatment he received prompted conspiracy theories at the time that Elser was member of the SS, and that the whole thing was a Nazi charade to burnish Hitler’s aura of invincibility. This is not referenced in the movie, and it has been pretty thoroughly discounted. But it could have injected some badly needed suspense. Instead, we’re left with an intriguing piece of history, and a lot of unanswered questions. — Jonathan Richards
I work alone: Christian Friedel, center, with Burghart Klaussner, left, and Johann von Bülow, right