You can’t expect a storyteller to wring much suspense out of a real-life plot to assassinate Hitler. In the case of Georg Elser, the subject of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s German drama 13 Minutes, the filmmakers must contend not just with the fact that we know Elser’s 1939 bomb won’t end the Reich — poor Elser, a German national, manages to get arrested after planting that bomb but before its explosion. That comes some 10 minutes into the movie, after a tense and detailed montage of Elser (a convincingly terrified Christian Friedel) piling dynamite in a hole in a brick wall in Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller beer hall, where the führer soon will be expectorating at a phalanx of his most rabid brass. Elser checks his wiring, sets his timers, then painstakingly boards up his work. He pants, in the dark, a flash bulb dangling from his mouth; he scrapes up his knuckles and knees enough that, when he tries to cross the Swiss border, the German officers will find him suspicious and lock him up.
Hirschbiegel and editor Alexander Dittner intercut all this with Hitler yapping later at his lectern, with that speech broadcast through the streets, with shots of timepieces and Elser’s schematics, with the protagonist confined before the act that will define his life has even had a chance to fail. The blast, when it comes, is captured in a long, silent shot of prewar Munich; it rips the night open but not the führer, who cut his speech short that night. No dummies, the cops and the Gestapo immediately suspect Elser, and he doesn’t really bother denying their charges. The story’s suspense then becomes diffuse: How much torture can he take before signing a formal confession? Did he act alone? Will his loved ones suffer, too? How long before the Nazis kill him?
The question of torture, I fear, is handled with the same attention to detail that distinguishes the opening sequence. Hirschbiegel shows us Elser strapped to a box spring, his pants yanked down, as his questioners whip him. We get vomit glopping out of his bloody mouth like slime from a Double Dare sluice. We see the interrogators sterilize the instruments they will plunge beneath the hero’s fingernails, though we’re spared the actual penetration.
We’re not spared his howls, though, which shake the soul of a secretary we observe sitting just outside the door. She maintains her disinterested composure, but in her eyes we see the toll her work for the Reich exacts upon her. Hirschbiegel’s film is mainly about a German who was moved to try to stop what was happening to his country, but its most upsetting moment is this, the contemplation of someone who can’t bring herself to do the same.
Elser had no accomplices. Soon, to protect his fiancée, he’s not just confessing — he’s re-creating his blueprints for his bomb to prove to the Nazis that, yes, he could do this on his own. Eventually, he poses for awkward photos with the investigating officers, over a full mockup of his impressive schematics. He’s an enemy of the Reich, yes, but they’re impressed.
Unfortunately, the script (by Fred Breinersdorfer and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer) does little with these ironies, and never surmounts the dramatic challenges those first scenes suggest: Here’s a story where getting pinched for not quite killing Hitler is the inciting incident. Where to go from there? The unsurprising — but never satisfying — answer is into brutality (see in real time a hanged man twitch till he stops!) and flashbacks, which find Elser younger, a factory worker pining for a married woman (Katharina Schüttler) and wishing he could get through just one night of playing accordion at the pub without bands of Nazis brawling with communists. The married woman, Else, likes him, too, and we can see why: He’s a pacific dreamer, caught up in music and carpentry rather than in the politics of a country going mad. Besides, her own husband (Rüdiger Klink), a drunken lout, routinely clobbers her, even when she’s pregnant.
Elser moves into their house as a boarder and soon takes up much clandestine activity: an affair, first of all, and then smuggling food to a friend who has been given reprieve from a labor camp to toil in the factory where Elser works, building tanks. Watching a propaganda film about those panzers, hearing his countrymen cheer what looks to him like the war that will destroy his country, Elser seems to come to his big decision.
If the film were more invested in his psychology, or more provocative in its consideration of political violence, this might all prove compelling. But nothing here gets to the central question: Why Elser? In these flashbacks, he witnesses the same horrors that everyone around him does. Why does he do what so many others would not? These flashbacks often come during the torture scenes, and they’re framed as relief rather than revelation, filling in the blanks instead of illuminating his conviction. The film is more fascinating as another example of Germany contending with its past than it is as drama or history.