Oliver Hirschbiegel has returned/retreated to his Nazi comfort zone after the so bad it’s incredibly bad biopic of Princess Diana in Diana (2013). After mining the historic territory of Nazi Germany to its very best affect in Downfall (2004) Hirschbiegel serves a more straightforward thriller here in the form of a biopic of Georg Elser: the man who attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1939, before Clause von Stauffenberg – depicted in Valkryie (2008)- , and even before Britain joined the war. Elser’s story is told through scenes of interrogation after his bombing attempt and flashbacks to the rise of the Nazi presence in his home town.
This could be seen as the final part of Hirschbiegel’s trilogy on the banality of evil preceded by The Experiment (2001), and Downfall (2004). The unquestioning following of orders is at the centre of Hirschbiegl’s focus. In 13 Minutes the most diabolical acts take part in Elser’s interrogation, where the interrogators are caught up in the machinations of a callous bureaucracy. The chain of command follows orders from the very top of the pile, through middle management, and lower to extract a false confession from Elser that he was part of a wider conspiracy.
Unlike Valkyrie, where the intentions of the Nazi conspirators are gleamed to the point that a Hollywood star could get involved without tarnishing their image, there is little whitewashing of the intentions behind Elser’s attempt. What makes this story so exceptional is that Elser really did appear to be acting on his own, with only a passing affiliation with any political faction. He never joined the Nazi Party at a time when it was social suicide to be ‘absent’ from the Fuhrer’s Third Reich. He acted because he believed Hitler was bad news for Germany. I personally was not aware of Elser’s story before seeing the film, and if the film is a bid to increase the awareness of him then good.
But in terms of a thriller it is a straightforward if a bit dull kind of affair. I think that the main problem is that by choosing Elser as the subject of the film we are given a hero that history has completely vindicated beyond the point of reproach. Nazi interrogators are largely represented as bad ‘uns – some are creep nearer pantomime – and collaborators are snivelling jobsworths or cruel drunks. The higher up the chain of command, the less problematic the depictions become and equally less sympathetic (if that is the right word). Hirschbiegel has forgone his focus on the true horror of the Nazi regime in Downfall: namely that they were human at all.
If a greater awareness of Georg Elser is all that this film achieves, then that is a good thing. But in the light of Hirschiegel’s other work it looks like a very cautious step backwards into a fairly tame thriller.