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'13 Minutes' is an interesting portrait of Hitler's would-be assassin

POSTED: August 11, 2017 1:11 p.m.
Josh Terry/

Katharina Schüttler as Elsa and Rüdiger Klink as Erich in "13 Minutes."

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“13 MINUTES” — 2½ stars — Christian Friedel, Katharina Schüttler, Burghart Klaußner, Johann Von Bülow, Felix Eitner; R (disturbing violence and some sexuality); Broadway

“13 Minutes” is a biographical drama about Georg Elser, the German citizen who tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler in Munich in November 1939. While compelling enough in its own right, director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film still pales next to its neighbors in the dramatic World War II genre.

Georg’s story toggles between two timelines. Over the opening credits, we see him in an assembly hall struggling to put together the bomb he hopes will end the reign of Hitler, which ultimately detonates 13 minutes after the Fuhrer has left the building. After the explosion, Georg (played by Christian Friedel) is captured swiftly, and the story of his interrogation and torture weaves back and forth with a flashback sequence that shows his political evolution.

The key to both sequences is Georg’s relationship with Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), a married woman he had an affair with in his native German village. It is only after threatening her that Georg's Nazi interrogators are able to get him to admit to his plan.

The flashbacks travel to 1932, where Georg develops his trade as a carpenter while building his reputation as a ladies’ man. All around, we see the growing influence of the emerging Nazi Party, and for a time Georg is counted among members of the Red Front Party, which draws him accusations of being a communist.

Much of this content is merely context for the story of how Georg came to know Elsa, who was married to an abusive man named Erich (Rüdiger Klink) at the time she met Georg, and well after Georg and Elsa officially began to pursue a relationship (Georg even lived as a tenant in Elsa and Erich's house for a time).

As Georg is tortured in 1939, simply admitting to his actions are not enough. Georg’s interrogators (played by Burghart Klaußner and Johann von Bülow) are convinced that Georg must have been working on behalf of someone else — they find it hard to believe he had the intelligence and means to design and execute such an elaborate explosive device, even if it didn’t ultimately accomplish its purpose.

Georg’s plight also illustrates the Nazi penchant for propaganda, as his captors seem decidedly less interested in punishing him than in using his confession to twist public narratives to their own ends.

Hirschbiegel’s story is an effective tale of how a comparatively unengaged citizen can be moved to extreme acts, and another example of how Nazi influence gradually grew in the years leading up to World War II. Georg’s friend Josef Schurr (David Zimmerschied), who eventually winds up in a labor camp, is used as a device to show the audience the things Georg is largely witnessing at a distance early on. (Georg eventually becomes much more of a hands-on witness, but even the scenes of his torture feel mild for the film's R-rating.)

But in spite of a sound production, “13 Minutes” has a difficult time creating total engagement with its audience. If anything, Hirschbiegel’s film suffers most from its own source material, which pales next to many other dramatic World War II-era narratives. In addition, Georg’s adulterous nature makes him tougher to get behind as a hero, in spite of his noble intentions. Altogether, “13 Minutes” provides yet another interesting story from a critical period in history, but not quite enough to distinguish it from its superior artistic achievements.

"13 Minutes" is presented in German with English subtitles.

“13 Minutes” is rated R for disturbing violence and some sexuality; running time: 104 minutes.
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