The well meaning, but scattershot historical drama 13 Minutes has a great subject and a bold approach, but it also ends up being thin and underdeveloped by trying to do too many things in a short amount of time. Telling the story of a man who unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1939, the latest film from Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) has no bones about painting its main character as conflicted and potentially unlikable, but it also has a problem making us care about the situation at hand, one where the outcome is already known to the audience in advance. There’s a way to make this kind of a film exciting and engaging, but 13 Minutes never reaches any sort of dramatic or historical high point.
Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) is a German musician and clockmaker who watches in detached horror as Nazi forces rise to power in his rural community. Georg is a bit of an unapologetic lothario (even fathering a child with a woman he unceremoniously left), but he finds himself taken by Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), a kind, attractive woman married to an abusive drunkard that’s tight with local Nazi leaders. Georg and Elsa carry on their trysts in private (literally right under the nose of her husband when Georg moves into a room in their home), but their love for each other can’t stay secret forever. As tensions rise and situations with Elsa’s husband force Georg to become estranged from his love, the everyman begins to hatch a love-driven plot to bomb a Munich beer hall where The Fuhrer will be delivering a speech on November 8, 1939.
The bombing attempt is where Hirschbiegel begins 13 Minutes (which is the amount of time by which Elser missed killing Hitler), and the majority of the film is told in flashback as Georg is tortured and interrogated by an SS agent (Burghart Klaußner) who has been ordered by his superiors to find a link between the lone wolf assassin and various organizations that oppose the Nazi party. It’s clear early on that Hirschbiegel and the script, courtesy of the father-daughter team of Fred and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer, have committed a cardinal sin. 13 Minutes isn’t a film that’s built for character progression, motivation, or the propulsion of a story, but rather around a creative editing and time-shifting gambit. What could have worked quite well as a thrilling, naturally escalating linear story has instead become a film designed to goose people into manipulative reactions whenever it drops in and out of carefully timed flashbacks. It’s akin to watching an atmospheric horror movie that relies solely on jump scares to get emotional reactions from the audience. It’s hollow, unsatisfying, and builds no momentum for the story.
Hirschbiegel spends a lot of time with Georg in his early years, but most of the character’s backstory will ultimately go nowhere and lend nothing to the whole of 13 Minutes. While the first quarter of the film will end up being largely superfluous, it does allow Hirschbiegel the chance to show Elser as an imperfect person that viewers should be wary of to some degree. The decision to depict Elser as both an unlikely hero and selfish human being initially strikes as novel and intriguing, until late in the film when Georg will be so self-centered that he literally becomes the kind of lecherous jerk that will come running to have sex with his lover moments after she has been mercilessly beaten by her husband. Hirschbiegel’s attempts to make the love story at the heart of 13 Minutes into the film’s backbone are ill advised and icky, especially when the film firmly depicts Georg’s assassination attempt as the ultimate act of love.
The viewer never fully believes that Elser is capable of love, so what emerges is a story where the escalation of the character’s motivation comes almost out of nowhere. The love story has taken precedence over the film’s strong start, and 13 Minutes reaches a point of no return where it writes itself into a narrative and thematic corner. Friedel is a great choice of lead, but there’s always a sense that he knows more about the character than Hirschbiegel and the viewer know. If not for the leading performance and some nice work from Klaußner as his Elser’s increasingly skeptical interrogator, 13 Minutes would come across as lifeless and shambling. The moments following the bombing are infinitely more intriguing than the love story, but the romance outweighs the political intrigue by about a 4 to 1 ratio.
While it’s marginally better than the turgid, similarly themed tale of unlikely Nazi resisters Alone in Berlin from earlier this year, 13 Minutes still finds a way to make a potentially rousing and exciting plot to kill one of the most hated world leaders in history into a bog-standard love story that doesn’t pull on any heartstrings or brainstems. Hirschbiegel has proven since Downfall (still his best World War II film) to be a talented visualist, but a mediocre storyteller. It’s an unlikable love story with a lout at the centre, and the lout in question also tries to pull off what should be an exciting wartime act of resistance. 13 Minutes has a great hook that’s ripe for adaptation, but is nowhere near as engaging as the premise suggests.
13 Minutes opens in Vancouver and at Canada Square in Toronto on Friday, July 7, 2017. It expands to other Canadian cities throughout the summer.
Check out the trailer for 13 Minutes: