A historical footnote that could have been a history-changing event is the subject of the German import “13 Minutes,” a portrait of would-be Hitler assassin Georg Elser. How close was this unlikeliest of radical activists to achieving his goal? It’s right there in the title — Elser was off by less than a quarter of an hour when he targeted Hitler with a homemade bomb in the very early days of World War II.
Some scenes of torture notwithstanding, director Oliver Hirschbiegel takes a more restrained approach than he did with his previous genre foray, the occasionally overwrought Princess of Wales biopic “Diana.” Similarly, Christian Friedel (“Chicken With Plums”) conveys an awful lot simply with his eyes as Elser, projecting lusty soulfulness in happier times, sorrow over the Nazis’ rise to power, and stunned disbelief at his plot’s failure. It’s a skillful way of charting the character’s journey from pastoral musician and woodworker to very different circumstances.
Even Elser’s Nazi inquisitors (notably Burghart Klaussner and Johann von Bülow) get some shading, locked in dicey debate among themselves over the story the bomber relates in continual flashbacks. They hardly know what to make of this “apolitical, ethnic German.” But even if they’re inclined to believe his assertion that he acted alone, their superiors want a less-confounding narrative extracted from him.
The film supplements its pacifist theme with extended looks at Elser’s relationship with a spirited, married village woman (Katharina Schüttler). Talk about a lover, not a fighter — Elser feels as powerless to confront her abusive husband (Rüdiger Klink) as he does the Nazis. Here, too, he’s pushed to action.
Hirschbiegel and Friedel win credibility points for painting Elser as noble without painting him as a saint. His affair with Schüttler’s character isn’t his only romantic indiscretion, and there’s mention of a couple of innocents killed in the blast he engineered. (Friedel’s take: Elser is horrified at the news, but also resolute.)
Still, the filmmakers perhaps could have done slightly more to supply certain finishing details. A tag just before the end credits notes that for decades Elser wasn’t officially recognized as a German freedom fighter, a late reveal that makes for some confusion. And if the Nazis were perplexed by how Elser had the know-how to cobble together that bomb, then so are we. The motive was clearly heroic, but the means are a little baffling.
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Written by Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer, Fred Breinersdorfer. Starring Christian Friedel, Katharina Schüttler, Burghart Klaussner, Johann von Bülow. At West Newton. 114 minutes. R (disturbing violence, some sexuality). In German, with subtitles.Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.