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'13 Minutes' Brilliantly Restages the Plot to Kill Hitler

Jul. 28, 2017
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Gulping nervously for air and sweating profusely, Georg Elser set sticks of dynamite into a basement crevice and attached a ticking timer to the charge. On Nov. 8, 1939, two months into World War II, Elser planted the bomb in the Munich beer hall where Hitler conducted his annual address to party comrades on the anniversary of the failed putsch that propelled him from local rabble-rouser to the national spotlight. 

13 Minutes

Starring Christian Friedel

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel

Rated R

But with the diabolical luck that accompanied Hitler up until the end, he left the hall 13 minutes before the bomb went off. The time between his departure and the explosion provides the name for the film based on those events by German director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), 13 Minutes

Quietly haunting the film, Christian Friedel portrays Elser as determined to maintain his dignity and conscience under unconscionable conditions. Elser has been chalked up as an enigma in the history books, a lone bomber acting from uncertain motives, and a nimbus of mystery clings to him throughout 13 Minutes. Elser is accurately depicted as a Christian who hung around with Communists but never joined the party—and as a suave proletarian ladies man, a dancer and a musician and as much a bohemian as his small-town life allowed.

Not improbably, the Elser of 13 Minutes is a pacifist finally driven to kill in the name of peace. He has deep remorse for the casualties he caused, including a waitress, but regrets that Hitler, driven by some unnamable impulse, cut his speech short and exited before the blast that surely would have claimed him.

With a strong sense of the past seeping into the present, much of Elser’s story is revealed in flashbacks triggered by incidents during his captivity. His bomb may have been well made but his escape was ill planned. After he was arrested, Elser is subjected to medieval tortures, the worst of it barely off screen. Hirschbiegel depicts a fissure in Germany’s officialdom in the attitudes of police official Arthur Nebe and his Gestapo counterpart. Nebe is shown as a professional cop concerned with establishing the truth. He believes Elser’s profession of acting alone. But as the Gestapo insists, “We create the truth”—the Fuhrer believes it was a conspiracy and they are determined to force Elser to confess to being part of a network. The relatively sympathetic portrayal of Nebe will be controversial. 

Aside from painting a plausible portrait of Elser, 13 Minutes excels in depicting the process that drove the would-be assassin to build his bomb—the Nazification of everyday life in Germany. The party boss in Elser’s town praises Hitler as the avatar of progress and technology and promises new streets paved and lit and a radio in every home. Hitler delivered on those promises even as he plotted the war and genocide that killed millions and left the continent in ruins.


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