You could say that what made Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 film Downfall palatable is that Hitler inevitably dies –although the film is suitably complex, and the damage already done, that his demise is more somberly fascinating than it is retrospectively gratifying (for the latter, refer to Inglorious Basterds). The vexing thing about Hirschbiegel’s harrowing new film is that Hitler does not die, and could have.
On the 8th of November, 1939, Georg Elser planted a bomb of his own construction at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, where Hitler would be delivering an address attended by several other high ranking Nazi officials. Elser’s bomb went off successfully, but it was thirteen minutes after Hitler’s premature departure.
To consider those thirteen minutes, and the alternate history that could have been had Elser succeeded, is to agonise.
It is a question inseparable from the way one views this film, even if the film itself –because it is mostly set in 1939, and earlier- is unable to be self-consciously retrospective.
13 Minutes is not a movie about the damage done anyway; the premise is how, by individual passivity, things can decay to such a point in the first place.
After Elser (Christian Friedel) is arrested by the gestapo, his interrogation is crosscut with flashbacks of his previously idyllic rural life; joviality; friendships and intimacies; the courting of his lover Elsa (Katharina Schüttler).
That this life is incrementally eroded by the rise of the Nazi party is to explain why Elser took it upon himself -unaccompanied, and with no particular political leanings- to eradicate the Führer. Georg -blessed or cursed- was one person prescient enough to see the rise of an evil that too many people around him chose either to comply with or ignore.
His story, here as told by Hirschbiegel, is one that perpetuates meaning, and the effect of the Reich, by juxtaposing beauty and humane moments with interrogation and torturous brutality –the latter being under Hitler that which was gained, and the former the cost which was outwardly lost.
Most horrifying is how easily that disparity is bridged; how past and present coalesce and become one; it is demonstrates evil not as an isolated chimera of war or tyranny, but as something insidious that begins first in the everyday life that you know unravels imperceptibly into cataclysm.
For this reason, framing the flashbacks -the majority of the film- as a doomed but poignant love story is effective, because it means that something tender is necessarily decimated in order that Elser’s apprehensions be human rather than politically abstract. Our investment in Georg and Elsa’s romance banks on universal impulses, it is never exploitative, it is compassionate and real, and they are eminently likeable because, and not in spite of, their glaring flaws as human beings.
But for all that the film is overly bleak, Elser’s story is nevertheless one of startling self-tenacity. That his plan fails is resoundingly catastrophic, but his commitment to action, and the potential of that action -in spite of the outcome- is a fatalistic triumph that suggests individual resistance is possible, even if in this case, it is the what-ifs that are more resoundingly poignant.
13 Minutes is the beginning to what in Downfall was an end, and if they have one thing in common, it is the same compassionate sense of humanism, which here is even more devastating, given the beautiful performances by its lead actors, and the organic sense of both personal and universal tragedies that the director handles deftly. This should be considered both an important work of film, and a testament to a defiant resistance fighter unfortunately glazed over by history.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10