From Oliver Hirschbiegel, the director of ‘Downfall‘ comes another tale of dastardly Nazis and moral ambiguity. Though it likely won’t become a meme-worthy classic like that previous feature, ’13 Minutes’ is an intense historical thriller that treks through well-worn territory to find something fresh. You wouldn’t think there would be another story about the Third Reich worth exploring on screen these days, but Hirschbiegel found one and it’s an impressive piece of work.
The film takes place in 1939, six years after Hitler took power. We open on Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) packing a pretty serious bomb onto what is slowly revealed to be “The Fuhrer’s Chair.” The bomb goes off, but sadly 15 minutes too late. Elser is captured, interrogated and tortured relentlessly by the Nazis, who find it impossible to believe that the young man acted alone. But he did.
Through flashback, we slowly learn what brought Elser to this place. In 1932, he was a carpenter by trade and an accordion player by passion (like Weird Al!). Slowly, we see the way the Nazis’ bigoted belief system poisons even his isolated community. He becomes radicalized. At first, that means acting as lookout for some friends painting anti-Nazi graffiti, but obviously that seed grows into more dramatic action. Back in the primary timeline, SS big bad Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow) demands that the local police chief Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaußner) get a full confession out of Elser revealing a vast conspiracy (that didn’t exist) to play into their propaganda machine.
It’s safe to say that ’13 Minutes’ isn’t exactly the feel-good blockbuster of the summer. However, it’s a sobering and powerful film that serves as welcome counter-programming to all the candy-colored heroic spectacle playing in neighboring theaters. While director Hirschbiegel might not manage to muster the brutally gripping nature of his last WWII picture, the film is gorgeously shot and performed with passion by all those who grace the screen. Cinematography shifts from the postcard imagery of a lost paradise 1930s Germany to dread-filled shadows blanketing the Nazi regime. The movie has some almost unbearably tense scenes of suspense and tortuous anguish. Christian Friedel delivers a brilliant lead performance of stoic silence and hidden strength, while both Johann von Bülow and Burghart Klaußner are given more shades of gray to their characters than other filmmakers would allow.
While the film is most certainly a period piece that has been carefully crafted to embody 1930s Germany, it also has a certain contemporary resonance. The way that Elser’s hometown is creepily emboldened by the hatred and xenophobia of Nazi propaganda feels very much reflective of the recent radical political changes worldwide. That’s not to say that Hirshbiegel intended this to be some sort of contemporary allegory or cautionary tale. (Many films, including ‘Cabaret’, dug around this ground before.) No, ’13 Minutes’ is first and foremost a dramatic thriller set within World War II and a work of lightly fictionalized history. However, those seeds of contemporary unrest give the film a little added potency. That’s a good thing given that the main subject matter is so familiar and Hirshbiegel’s commitment to somber realism and historical accuracy can often rob the movie of momentum and urgency.
’13 Minutes’ is hardly a perfect film, but it’s an effective one boasting more contemporary resonance than initially meets the eye.