Political Film Review #544

Although the most famous plot to kill Hitler occurred in 1944, involving several military officials, less famous but celebrated in 13 Minutes was Johann Georg Elser (played by Christian Friedel). The film begins with the explosion of a bomb and Elser’s arrest on November 8, 1939. The bomb had been placed under the podium where Hitler was to speak, but the explosion occurs 13 minutes after Hitler (Bruno Ganz) leaves the room, so a few of those still present die instead. The film then concentrates on his interrogation after imprisonment with flashbacks to his early life and even love life with married Else (Katharina Shüttler), who hates her husband. At first, Elser will say nothing, but when Else is rounded up and presented to him, he begins to talk so they he will not be responsible for her harm. The interrogation, which involves torture that will upset many viewers, reveals that Elser acted alone and had nonideological reasons for doing so, something that Hitler will not accept, preferring as he does to find a conspiracy so that he can crack down on some group and become a martyr. Elser’s interrogation is the responsibility of Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner), the head of the Nazi Criminal Police department, who hears of a life story of an amiable but unpretentious musician in a small town in Württemberg. Elser learns on his own how to put together a bomb and get explosives while working at a steel factory. Although Elser has friends while growing up who later join the Communist Party, he never joins; his family is devoutly Protestant. So why does Elser of all people want to kill Hitler? Three reasons emerge from his lips: (1) He is inclined toward pacifism, and he expects that Hitler will bring massive deaths to Germany. (2) Having viewed how the Nazi state operates, employing bullies, Elser observes how daily lives of ordinary Germans have been ruined. (3) “Nobody would have joined me” is his best explanation. Eventually, Nebe sees that torture is of no use, accepting the “lone wolf” argument.
Suddenly, the screen flashes “Five Years Later.” Nebe, who led Einsatzgruppe B, is now found guilty of being one of the military who has tried to kill Hitler, and filmviewers watch his slow death by hanging in July 1944. Meanwhile, Elser is still alive, incarcerated in Dachau, charming one of his jailers until he, too, is slated for execution by firing squad only hours before the arrival of Allied troops.
Throughout the film, many Americans will doubtless compare conditions in wartime Germany with the current situation in the United States as well as Trump with Hitler, who demonstrably brainwashed his underlings to accept Social Darwinism in the name of making Germany Great Again. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel is familiar to members of the Political Film Society, having had his films twice nominated before—Das Experiment (2002) and Downfall (2005).
As a film bringing Elser to prominence after so many years of nonrecognition, the Political Film Society has nominated 13 Minutes as best film exposé of 2017. Proving that torture does not work, the film also merits a nomination for best film on human rights of 2017. MH