The German drama “13 Minutes” is a riveting story about one man’s attempt to stop World War II when it had barely started, by acting on the evil he saw but few of his countrymen did.
Georg Elser plotted by himself to do what the Allied forces couldn’t: to kill Adolf Hitler. He came quite close, planting a bomb at a Nazi party meeting in Munich on Nov. 8, 1939, only two months after the German invasion of Poland that started World War II. It worked, too — except that Hitler left the meeting early. Had he stayed just 13 minutes longer, he likely would have been killed.
The audience is told all of this in the movie’s opening minutes, and Elser (Christian Friedel) is quickly caught by the Nazis and interrogated. Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner), the head of the Criminal Police, and the local Gestapo chief, Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow), are under pressure to force a quick confession from Elser — and to get him to name his accomplices.
Elser won’t budge at first, even under physical torture that makes for some harrowing scenes. But when the Gestapo rounds up his family and his ex-fianceé, Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), Elser starts telling his story. His insistence that he acted alone, though it fits the facts, doesn’t fit the official line that he must have been influenced by one of the Third Reich’s perceived internal enemies.
Through flashbacks, director Oliver Hirschbiegel and screenwriters Fred Breinersdorfer (“Sophie School: The Final Days”) and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer (Fred’s daughter) trace how Elser went from a nonpolitical musician and clockmaker to a radicalized bomb maker. They show how he watched the Nazis’ totalitarianism build gradually but inexorably, instilling fear of Jews, Communists and any group it could label as “the other.”
The flashbacks also show how Elser met Elsa, a mother of two with an alcoholic and abusive husband, Erich (Rüdiger Klink) — and how they had a passionate love affair right under his nose.
Hirschbiegel has explored the Third Reich before, notably in “Downfall” (2004), in which Bruno Ganz portrayed Hitler in his final days in the bunker. (“Downfall” was the source of the infamous “crazy Hitler” meme that infected the internet for several years.) Here, Hitler is barely seen, but his presence is felt in his brutal policies and in the ruthless zeal in which the Gestapo, embodied by Müller, enforces them.
As energetically and movingly portrayed by Friedel, Elser becomes an example of defiance in the face not only of Hitler’s evil but of a group mentality that chooses to stay silent in the face of it. Such authoritarianism, and the silence that permits it, pops up from time to time in history, and “13 Minutes” is a timely look at the heroism it takes to break that silence.
* * * 1/2
A lone German tries to stop Adolf Hitler at the beginning of World War II, in this compelling drama.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas..
When • Opens Friday, Aug. 11.
Rating • R for disturbing violence and some sexuality.
Running time • 114 minutes; in German, with subtitles.