Director Oliver Hirschbiegel made a critical splash back in 2004 with his masterful WWII drama Downfall, which dramatically recounted the last few days of Adolf Hitler’s life in his underground bunker. It earned the film an Oscar nomination and the director the reputation as one of the best talents of European cinema this century. The interim hasn’t seen him live up to that early potential, unfortunately, with a disastrous Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake and most recently the laughable Diana biopic.
Now he’s back with a stoic, if not entirely memorable WWII drama that tells the amazing true story of how in 1939 a young man named Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) tried and failed to assassinate Hitler while he was making a speech in Munich – the title refers to the amount of time Elser missed the German leader by because he left early. The film flips back and forth between his subsequent apprehension and brutal torture at the hands of the Nazis and the years and days leading up to his meticulously planned attack.
13 Minutes is undeniably a handsomely mounted film, with beautiful cinematography, production design and a generally excellent capturing of the time period. If nothing else you truly, utterly believe that it takes place in the era that it claims to, something that isn’t always a given in these types of stories. It’s also brilliantly acted, with Friedel giving a particularly affecting and powerful performance as Georg, a man fighting against one of the most oppressive systems of power in human history and quite literally taking a beating (and then some!) for what he believes in and vehemently against.
The trouble is that the film can feel rather messy in conveying the story that it’s trying to tell. Despite a very obvious structure of jumping back into Georg’s past pretty much whenever one of the Nazi officers questions him about such simple information as his name and age, it’s rather flippant in how it goes back and forth and it’s often very unclear which time period we’re supposed to be in at any given moment. And since the film starts off with Georg planting the bomb, it sort of deflates any great sense of “will he make it to that point” anticipation. Furthermore, it’s not a film in a hurry to get anywhere, lending it a curious lack of immediacy.
The film also takes a disappointingly unsubtle approach at times, either with extra-long close-ups of Georg’s bewildered face when he discovers his bomb missed his target and killed innocent civilians instead– as if we couldn’t feel or figure out how devastating that is ourselves – or in how it sanctifies the central figure. It can sometimes feel like the character is held up to be Oskar Schindler-level saintly, but it never entirely rings true when he’s portrayed as never doing even the slightest thing wrong.
Nevertheless, for all its faults, there’s still something admirable about 13 Minutes, a kind of lump-in-the-throat sincerity about one man’s heroic story that’s sadly little known to most outside of wartime aficionados. There are moments that are genuinely shocking – particularly in the brutal but importantly never gratuitous scenes of torture – and it provides a pleasingly authentic view of that most crucial of 20th century time periods. I just wish it relied a bit less on the jumbled up plot; perhaps simply telling it in the right order might have given the true impact it needed.