13 Minutes

13 Minutes picOliver 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.

Love and Mercy

Love And Mercy pic

With a life like Brian Wilson’s how is it possible to depict such a thing on screen? If you want to do a good job of it you do it like this. Love and Mercy (2014) depicts two parts of Wilson’s life – namely the recording of Pet Sounds leading to his breakdown, and his introduction to Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) in the 1980s who finds him under the oppressive watch of unhinged psychologist Eugene Levy (Paul Giamatti). Two Brian Wilson’s for the price of one!

By focusing on two periods of Wilson’s life, Director Bill Pohlad has his cake and eats it. The tired (if satisfying) tropes in the biographies of musicians may still be in evidence (piecing together a masterpiece in the recording studio, breakdown, rise), but the non-holistic approach of the narrative allows for plenty of space for the real life Wilson to exist between the scenes. The twin narratives are almost completely different in terms of tone, but it works so well, as if Pohlad is acknowledging the pitfalls of cutting a person’s life into the form of a music biography.

One jarring element in the film is the discrepancy between the two depictions of Wilson from Dano and Cusack. Dano physically embodies the role, with a stiff neck, soft voice, and a weight gain that is extraordinary in its attention to detail. Cusack wears short sleeve shirts and has a slurred hesitation to his dialogue, but after that it’s very much a Cusack performance, tics and all. This is not a bad thing, but the huge differences in performance, whilst both good in their own way, had me distracted. I had to convince myself about half way through the film that no comment was being made: Cusack embodying a washed out 80s, the decade that brought him – Cusack – to fame? Meta Wilson/Cusack? No, apparently not.

Paul Giamatti’s performance as the terrifying Eugene Levy may raise eyebrows but according to Pohlad, who was speaking to Wilson throughout the making of the film, they had to dial back from 11 to 9 for Levy to work as a believable character.

There is a risk that the film could be overreaching itself: two films for the price of one. But Pohlad does a good job of tying these stories together, even if the lead performances don’t quite provide a consistent anchor to the overall narrative. There is more than enough to fill out two films with the material that is being worked with here, which partly explains why the script for this film has been in development for several years. But Pohlad keeps it tight and loose to allow for a coherent narrative without crowbarring Wilson into a story, and doesn’t the film to be drowned in exposition. Good music too.