J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

13 Minutes: How Georg Elser Almost Changed History

Georg Elser did not look intimidating, nor did he sound particularly formidable. Yet, that is a major reason why he came so close to changing the course of world history. He nearly saved Germany from the continued waste of a destructive war and the profound dishonor of its crimes against humanity, but he missed his target by less than a quarter of an hour. The remarkable true story of his nearly successful attempt to assassinate Hitler is dramatized in Oliver Hirschbiegel's 13 Minutes (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Elser was a carpenter by training, but was competent in numerous forms of skilled labor and craftsmanship. He was decidedly not the heroic type, but he recognized how National Socialism was cannibalizing the civilian economy and encouraging open thuggery and prejudice in the streets. His growing resolve to take dramatic direct action compelled Elser to forego a life with his married lover, whom he accurately but honestly referred to as his “landlady,” for her own protection.

In flashbacks, we clearly see Elser is considerably less inclined to activism than his more radical social circle. Yet, he is not necessarily wrong to doubt the effectiveness of their street protests. To protect Elsa and his family, Elser resolves to work alone. Unfortunately, when his plot to bomb a National Socialist conference fails by the narrowest of margins, he is quickly rounded-up. Yet, his police and Gestapo interrogators cannot believe such a sophisticated plan was the sole work of one nebbish workingman.

Granted, we should all have a general idea of the shape of 13 Minutes’ narrative arc for reasons that hardly need belaboring. However, viewers will be surprised how many scenes reverberate with maddeningly tragic what-if’s. The interrogation sequences featuring Criminal Police (Kripo) Chief Arthur Nebe and Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller are especially resonant. There have been attempts to rehabilitate Nebe’s image over the years, but screenwriters Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer and Fred Breinersdorfer generally hold to largely accepted view that Nebe was far from a clandestine saint, but still not as vicious as his Gestapo (a low hurdle to clear if ever there was one).

Regardless, Burghart Klaußner (recently seen as Fritz Bauer) and Johann von Bülow are terrific conveying the frosty lack of chemistry between the awkwardly matched security chiefs. It is fascinating to witness the micro-Cold War unfolding between them. Likewise, Christian Friedel is so tightly wound as Elser, he is almost painful to watch. Yet, he convincingly portrays the complicated development of Elser’s formerly disengaged character.

Germany shortlisted 13 Minutes as their official foreign language submission for the 2016 Academy Awards, but Labyrinth of Lies got the nod instead. Frankly, 13 Minutes is emotionally deeper and considerably more powerful. Hirschbiegel is a talented filmmaker, who has a knack for wringing tension out of confined spaces and intimate situations. Everyone knows his work, thanks to the frequently meme’ed Hitler-in-the-bunker scene from Downfall, but 13 Minutes is leaner and more rigorously Spartan, like his under-appreciated Five Minutes of Heaven. Highly recommended for patrons of historical dramas and tragic fact-based thrillers, 13 Minutes opens this Friday (6/30), at the Lincoln Plaza.

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