Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the July 1944 attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler. Thoroughly documented on print and film (most recently in Valkyrie, which I haven’t seen thanks to the presence of one of my least favorite actors), Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg has long been the face of homegrown German resistance to the Führer.
Of course, the truth isn’t quite so simple. Von Stauffenberg represented the Imperial ‘deep state’ that wanted the Nazi regime replaced with a government more benign but no less rightwing and nationalistic. Hitler’s assassination was intended to set in motion a military coup that would allow this new German regime to sue for peace and hopefully survive the war.
A quick Wikipedia search, however, reveals that the July 20 plot had been preceded by many other assassination attempts — including the one depicted in 13 Minutes (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, July 7). Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), it’s an imperfect but still worthwhile historical drama.
The hero of 13 Minutes is Georg Elser, an unprepossessing Württemberg woodworker and sometime clockmaker largely disconnected from politics. A Protestant who voted for Communists because of their support for workers’ rights, Elser (portrayed here by Steve Buscemi-lookalike Christian Friedel) disliked the Nazis from the beginning but was a pacifist convinced that violence never changed anything for the better.
Its narrative awkwardly jumping back and forth from the uneasy years of peace to the last days of the Second World War, 13 Minutes depicts Elser’s slow but steady journey from pacifism to direct action. The film pinpoints his ‘radicalization’ through a series of subplots involving his former union comrades (some of whom ended up as forced laborers in a local steel plant) and his relationship with Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), the love of his life and spouse of a brutal alcoholic husband.
Elser was captured almost immediately after his failed Nov. 8, 1939 assassination attempt (the bomb, placed in the Munich beer hall where Hitler delivered an annual speech, exploded thirteen minutes after the Führer left the building, killing eight); his captors refused to believe he was a lone wolf who built and planted a bomb without the aid of co-conspirators.
The film’s screenplay (penned by father and daughter team Fred and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer) glosses over some of the less admirable aspects of Elser’s life (according to his Gestapo investigation report, referenced in this Wikipedia article, he — like Stauffenberg — simply wanted to replace the leaders of the Nazi Party) in favor of something a little less nuanced and more cinematic. Nonetheless, it’s impossible not to watch 13 Minutes and not admire the woodworker’s moral journey and ultimate refusal to lie to make things easier for himself.
In a supreme piece of irony and poetic justice, one of Elser’s interrogators was Arthur Nebe (the always excellent Burghart Klaussner, previously seen in The People vs. Fritz Bauer and Diplomacy), a Nazi apparatchik deeply implicated in the machinations of the Holocaust. 13 Minutes suggests – accurately, apparently – that Nebe treated Elser comparatively well, and also depicts his execution in 1945 for participation in the July 20 Von Stauffenberg plot. It’s hard to believe, but true!