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July 14, 2015
Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes tells the true story of George Elser, a man who single handedly tried to overthrow Hitler during the early stages of the Nazi regime. The film’s plot sees Hirschbiegel return to familiar territory, having enjoyed critical success – and celebrated internet parody – with the remarkable Downfall (2004) before somewhat falling out of favour with slick sci-fi The Invasion (2007) and the widely panned biopic Diana (2013).
By re-visiting the darkness of the Third Reich, we see a return to form for the German director, who admits he was momentarily nervous about creating another film on the topic, opening 13 Minutes up to additional pressures to live-up to his previous success. “There was a little fear in going back,” he says, before revealing with relief: “thankfully on my first day on set, I realised that I could still do it; I could still make films in my own language about my home country”.
13 Minutes opens with Elser – played by the impressive Christian Friedel – crouching on his hands and knees as he carefully implants a homemade bomb into a pillar behind the stand where Hitler is due to make his address. Time instantly becomes the film’s dramatic driving force, with the audience immediately invested in Elser successfully placing the bomb and leaving undiscovered. Fate deals the protagonist a cruel hand, and guards discover him as he makes his escape. Whilst reprimanded in custody, we hear a bomb go off in the distance. Elser’s bomb just misses Hitler, who has left the building a mere 13 minutes beforehand.
With such important scenes happening in the film’s opening moments, it’s vital that the audience makes a quick connection with the central character. Friedel adds a substantial amount of humanity to the role, playing the rural carpenter with an enduring strength that encourages the viewer to invest in his story from the outset.
Speaking of the casting process, Hirschbiegel admits he “only had Christian in mind as a brilliant actor” rather than the role of Elser being written with him in mind. “For the role of George Elser, we interviewed about 20 top actors, and he was among them” the director explains. So what was it about Friedel’s performance that won him the role? “Not only did he give an exceptional performance, there was no beginning and end to what he created – he simply became the character.”
Once imprisoned, Elser is brutally interrogated by the Gestapo, who refuse to accept that he worked alone on his plot. After initially refusing to share his identity, Elser is repeatedly tortured in a number of painful and degrading ways. Hirschbiegel explains, “(the torture) is there to show that to them, a human life wasn’t worth anything… it’s so horrible, but I felt I needed to depict it that way”.
Critics of 13 Minutes have suggested that these extended scenes verge on torture-porn, and as an audience member they do feel a little too prolonged at times, however the director suggests: “it’s a thin line, the torture must never become voyeuristic”. Praising Friedel’s performance once more, Hirschbiegel says “it was amazing how much he really got into the pain of the character – I was shocked when I watched it back.”
Hirschbiegel uses these interrogation scenes to introduce flashbacks from Elser’s life, drawing the audience into his lead character’s personal story and thus endearing them to his plight. Describing the creation of these scenes, the director explains: “the challenge with this period piece was to go back in time and create something authentic, whilst equally creating something relevant for now. You want to make it so the audience feels a part of it… that they get a sense of what it smells like, what it tastes like.”
Through these flashbacks, we see moments of Elser’s relationships with women, from his wearied mother trying to keep the family afloat alongside his alcoholic father, to the tragic love story between him and Elsa (Katharina Schüttler). Though George and Elsa’s relationship helps to build audience sentimentality, Hirschbiegel is eager to stress that there was no artistic license used to enhance this romantic sub-plot. “It’s an entirely true story, everything you see… to both of them it was a life-defining love.”
As if to hammer home the role of fate, Elser is shown years after his imprisonment in a concentration camp, moments from being executed, wondering if Elsa has managed to survive the bloodshed. In reality she had – Elsa lived until 1995, re-marrying twice but never forgetting her one true love. As the director explains, “with no support, women were forced to remarry quickly in order to survive and feed their children… in her biography, Elsa states that after George she became a very unhappy woman.”
The real story behind 13 Minutes is so perfectly formed – complete with heroes, villains, romance and poignant tragedy – that it seems baffling how George Elser’s tale isn’t better known.
There was an earlier film adaptation, Seven Minutes (1989), directed by Klaus Maria Brandauer, but Hirschbiegel feels confident that this is a legacy that is still due homage.
13 Minutes is released in UK cinemas on July 17th