'13 Minutes (Elser)': Berlin Review

'13 Minutes' still - H 2015
Densely dramatized but light on emotional heft

Oliver Hirschbiegel's account of a footnote of failed heroism in Third Reich history was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics prior to its Berlin premiere.

A portrait of a German pacifist whose awakening to rising inhumanity in the early days of World War II spurs him to radical action, 13 Minutes chronicles in exhaustive detail an event that might have changed history if not for the narrow mistiming of the title. Oliver Hirschbiegel's drama is handsomely mounted and driven by a lead performance of unquestionable integrity from Christian Friedel as courageous real-life resistance figure Georg Elser. And while its tireless shuffling between brutal interrogation rooms and the protagonist's preceding years in an alpine village becomes plodding and overburdened by incident, the film should nonetheless find an audience in the prestige-picture market.

Sony Pictures Classics bought North American rights, as well as Latin America, on the eve of the Berlin premiere. Given the company's sharp nose for sniffing out international foreign-language Oscar submissions early in the annual race, the acquisition is not surprising, especially in view of the Academy's track record of recognizing Holocaust-themed dramas. But in a year in which Pawel Pawlikowski's remarkable Ida showed that there are still vital, dramatically distinctive ways to explore the festering legacy of Nazism, 13 Hours adheres to a more familiar template.

The film marks a return for director Hirschbiegel to the dramatic territory of his 2004 breakthrough Downfall — a.k.a. the movie that launched a thousand Hitler-rant YouTube parodies — after the decidedly mixed results of his English-language projects. If you were trying to forget Diana and The Invasion, you’re not alone.

In terms of technical polish, Hirschbiegel is in top form. The screenplay by father-and-daughter team Fred and Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer starts in brisk action-thriller mode, with tense coverage throughout the title sequence of Elser in 1939, sweating and panting as he plants explosives and a complex timer in a carefully concealed hole in the wall of a Munich beer tavern where Hitler is scheduled to address a National Socialist Party audience two days later.

Read more Berlin: Sony Pictures Classics Takes '13 Minutes for North America

However, as the clock is ticking, Elser is arrested at the Swiss border. He learns only later while under interrogation that Hitler's schedule was unexpectedly changed and he left the building just 13 minutes before the explosion, which killed eight innocent people.

This is a fascinating story known to students of Holocaust history but unfamiliar in many parts of the world, which will be helpful in marketing the film. But the suspense of the opening scenes too quickly gives way to dutiful back-and-forth coverage that struggles to maintain consistent dramatic momentum.

Interrogated by the head of Criminal Police Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner) and Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller (Johann von Bulow), the defiant Georg initially refuses to cooperate. He even shows amusing signs of insolence by deadpanning that he acted under direct instructions from Churchill. But word from Berlin makes it clear that Hitler is unwilling to accept the embarrassing publicity of a lone-agent assassination attempt by a non-Jewish German carpenter. That means brutal beatings and torture are applied, until Elsa (Katharina Schuttler), the unhappily married woman that Georg loved back in Konigsbronn, is dragged in and threatened, in order to break his silence.

These scenes are punctuated with attenuated effectiveness by returns to Georg's previous life, starting with his idyllic days with friends and lovers as a carefree musician at Lake Constance in 1932. Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann relies on the visual cliché of oversaturated, warm colors to distinguish the drama's past from present, but this is a good-looking production, with images often strikingly framed to take full advantage of the widescreen canvas.

Read more Berlin: 'Downfall,' '13 Minutes' Part of Trilogy on Nazi Era, Says Director

When his father's drinking threatens to cost them the family farm, Georg is summoned back to his native village. While he maintains his apolitical distance and resists the overtures of his friend Josef (David Zimmerschied) to draw him into the Communist Party, Georg is clearly troubled by the steady poisoning of the community as the SS influence closes in.

This is not new territory for German film, but the contrast of encroaching evil against a backdrop of picturesque villages and simple rural life is chilling, no matter how many times we've seen the corrupted innocence of golden-haired Hitler youth depicted.

The false promise of a better life for the workers of Germany under Hitler is shown as a primary factor in Georg's galvanization. But it's in this contextualizing backstory that the script could have used more concise treatment, not to mention a subtler hand in portraying the loathsome brutality of Elsa's boozing husband Erich (Rudiger Klink).

The details of Georg's planning and execution of the assassination attempt, as he maps it all out for his interrogators, are generally more compelling than the growing personal rejection of injustice that dictated his actions. There's intriguing conflict in those scenes as the authorities refuse to believe he could have been acting alone, but expert evaluation of his confession increasingly points that way. This also creates friction between Nabe — whose demeanor quietly suggests respect for Georg's sense of conviction, if not his cause — and Muller, who remains a more standard-issue sneering monster.

Stylized scenes of Georg under the hallucinatory influence of sodium pentothal have the overwrought feel of a Ryan Murphy nightmare, flashing between grainy glimpses of the past and barking Nazis. But there are affecting moments showing brief exchanges of looks or words between Georg and the interrogation-room secretary (Lissy Pernthaler). Just a silent glance as she looks up from her book out in the corridor while a vicious flogging is taking place behind the door speaks volumes.

In other ways, too, Hirschbiegel refrains from some of the usual emphatic breast-beating that often comes with Holocaust drama, particularly in his measured use of David Holmes' elegant music. And there’s also nothing overstated in Friedel's moving central performance.

But 13 Minutes could have taken a hint from its pithy international title and been a bit less long-winded. The movie is well acted and mostly absorbing, but it spells out everything so painstakingly that there's zero room for subtext. And the belabored final scenes in 1945, which contrast the fates of Nebe and Georg, have a somewhat diluted impact that could still be improved at the editing table. It also might be wise to avoid the seeming contradiction of a postscript calling Georg the love of Elsa's life from which she never recovered, while revealing that she remarried twice.

Production company: Lucky Bird Pictures

Cast: Christian Friedel, Katharina Schuttler, Burghart Klaussner, Johann von Bulow, Felix Eitner, David Zimmerschied, Rudiger Klink, Simon Licht, Cornelia Kondgen, Martin Maria Abram, Michael Kranz, Gerti Drassi, Lissy Pernthaler

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Screenwriters: Fred Breinersdorfer, Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer

Producers: Boris Ausserer, Oliver Schundler, Fred Breinersdorfer

Executive producers:

Director of photography: Judith Kaufmann

Production designers: Benedikt Herforth, Thomas Stammer

Costume designer: Bettina Marx

Music: David Holmes

Editor: Alexander Dittner

Casting: An Dorthe Braker, Karimah El-Giamal

Sales: Beta Cinema

No rating, 114 minutes.