Adolf Hitler’s fictional deaths occupy a larger space among our collective cultural conscience than perhaps even his actual death does. Whether it’s Tarantino imagining close-range machine-gun fire shredding the Führer during a Nazi propaganda film or twentysomething stoners pontificating about the moral dilemmas of killing him as a child if only time travel were a possibility, there’s likely no other historical figure, short of Jesus Christ, whose imagined death has provoked as much thought and discussion.
13 Minutes capitalizes on our seemingly boundless fascination with any and all Hitler-centric revisionist history by melding the ultimate “what if” with the stale conventions of the biopic. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 film Downfall effectively generates tension through its limited scope, intimately exploring the strategic and psychological unraveling of the dictator and his cronies over the final days of the Third Reich. Where the Führer’s downfall in that film represents a predestined yet cathartic reenactment, 13 Minutes draws on a much lesser known piece of history: Georg Elser’s (Christian Friedel) failed assassination attempt of Hitler (Udo Schenk) in 1938. While the story of the man who came closest to preventing World War II from ever happening seems ripe for cinematic interpretation, 13 Minutes ultimately reveals that there’s little to be found in Elser’s life that hasn’t been examined ad infinitum by the glut of wartime films over the past 70 years.
The title’s 13 minutes refer to the amount of time between Hitler’s early exit from a Munich beer hall where he delivered a speech and Elser’s time bomb finally going off. Yet Hirschbiegel spends a mere five minutes at the film’s start on the execution of the assassination attempt, eschewing suspense to instead focus on Elser the man rather than Elser the assassin. Though it’s admirable to pay homage to a man who went unrecognized by Germany as a resistance fighter until decades later, it becomes apparent throughout the film that nothing Elser actually did was as remarkable as the biggest thing he didn’t quite pull off. And thus the suspense driving the opening sequence is replaced by restrained yet predictable parallel stories of his interrogations by the Nazis, led by Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaußner), and the trite story of his love affair with Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), a married woman whom Elser rescues from her abusive Nazi-supporting husband.
13 Minutes’s dual narratives explain the motivations behind Elser’s assassination attempt on Hitler as if they weren’t already glaringly obvious while unnecessarily amplifying the sacrifices he made in order to bring his plan to fruition. While many of the individual interrogation scenes are gripping in their stark realism, particularly when the Nazi officers struggle to convince their superior officers that Elser did indeed act alone, the incessant contrasting with Elser’s idyllic life in early-1930s Germany minimizes the myriad complex factors that led to Hitler’s rise to power.
Hirschbiegel includes a brief scene of an escaped concentration camp victim as well as a woman who’s publicly beaten and shamed for being with a Jewish man, but he tends to overstate the difficulties faced by non-Nazi Germans when compared to those of the Jews, who are only cursorily represented here. The film’s aim is clearly to project the heroism of the German resistance fighters and communists who worked against the Third Reich, but the maudlin presentation of prewar Germany as some sort of untarnished utopia is rather suspect and disingenuous. Aside from further vilifying the Nazis, 13 Minutes ideological endgame remains a bit too slippery. Its uneasy blend of martyrdom and sentimentality would have gone down smoother had the film not repeatedly veered toward hagiographic representation of a character whose life and struggles simply aren’t all that compelling.