Words By: Jack Dawson
In a lot of ways 13 Minutes has very little opportunity to surprise its audience. This story about a man named Georg Elser who missed out on killing Hitler by 13 Minutes is a real life story, which means he obviously didn’t succeed, he obviously suffers a great deal of pain and unpleasantness throughout the film, and Elser is obviously in the right for doing what he did.
And given that the director also did Downfall, it’s no surprise that this is a tightly constructed and shot film that practices admirable restraint and control over its evocative subject matter.
Georg Elser is a carefree man with musical talents and an impressive grasp of technical devices. In any other time in history, he’d probably lead a blameless life. Unfortunately, we open our film in 1939, right when things in Nazi Germany were turning from ‘uncomfortable’, to ‘terrifying’. After seeing the encroaching anti-semitism, forced conformity, and bloodlust of the Nazi party affect the lives of those around him, Georg decides that something needs to be done.
13 Minutes acts as a fascinating companion piece to the likewise dour Downfall, both of which take place at opposite ends of the Second World War. Both are rather grim explorations of the corruption of the German psyche by Nazism, but both take different approaches. While Downfall spends a great deal of time showing us the material destruction and downfall of both Berlin and the Nazi elite, 13 Minutes relies on our knowledge of World War II history a little more. History savvy viewers will recognize propaganda posters and specific uniforms, spot the oblique references to Nazi tactics and recognize the foreshadowing present throughout the entire film. And in both films the danger of conformity and the value in disobeying bad orders in service to a humanitarian good are trumpeted loud and clear, using vivid and shocking visuals to accentuate their points.
The key difference in this film however is that we are examining the journey and growth of one single man, albeit not always in the most nuanced way. For the most part 13 Minutes is an excellent portrait of one man becoming increasingly critical of the despotic government around him, it’s mostly the depiction of his increased political awareness through his romantic life that falls a bit flat. Admittedly I’m less than familiar with the history behind this film, maybe the real Georg Elser really did have dozens of women throwing themselves at him before finally settling on one married woman, simultaneously learning the value of commitment.
But taken at face value, a male main character having to emotionally mature until he can learn to commit to a relationship comes across as a somewhat tired device.
But as much as the romantic elements of 13 Minutes are a little stale, they don’t overstay their welcome, and there are some genuinely touching moments. And besides which, the film’s depictions of political movements and of the humanitarian motivations of Elser are genuinely well realised. The film emphasises his relative political indifference, attributing his assassination attempt to more humanitarian concerns and an aversion to complacency. The political leanings and expressions of National Socialism are also fleshed out, averting the common practice of reducing Nazi’s to cartoonish stereotypes, an important distinction in World War Two Media.
Of course sometimes the Viewer will do that for you.
And these political themes come full circle in the framing device of Georg Elser being interrogated for information. However 13 Minutes once again distinguishes itself from many films built upon the premise of a true story, particularly in how it approaches the somewhat tired ‘main character confesses their entire life story including the incidental bits that have no benefit for their in-story audience to a sceptical authority figure’.
Take The Imitation Game for instance, an inoffensive retelling of Alan Turing’s work on the Enigma Machine, where an older Turing confesses his entire life’s story to a Police Officer in a way that firmly separates both timelines and creates a rather disjointed story with disparate tones. 13 Minutes takes a different approach, Georg takes some time to agree to any kind of confession, and when he does he only tells his Captors what’s strictly relevant to his attempted assassination attempt, the incidental details that humanize him further are left for the audience alone.
Further information is coerced out of him by an enraged Nazi elite who refuse to believe that he doesn’t have Marxist inclinations, further accentuating and articulating the attitudes and paranoia of the Nazi High Command. The past and present depicted in the film complement one another perfectly, and help to reinforce the themes of the film, I’ve rarely seen such a well told story in a film.
Ultimately the biggest surprise that I found in 13 Minutes was in how pleasant it was to watch. The film depicts harrowing subject matter, Concentration Camps, Torture, complacency in the face of injustice. But its all told with such an expert hand and with technical polish that I can’t help but appreciate it for the tense, moody and intelligent film that it is. I highly recommend you go see it, in this summer of Jurassic World and Terminator: Genysis, it’s nice to see a film with a firm grasp of tone and theme.