MOVIE REVIEW: ’13 Minutes (Elser)’ is a delicate, if pedestrian World War II drama

Oliver Hirschbiegel's German-language World War II drama is well-made, if lacking any unique thematic depth

| August 11, 2017 | 0 Comments

When it comes to World War II films, “Dunkirk” is all the rage at the moment. Christopher Nolan’s massive action-thriller has audiences and critics on their feet cheering for its achievements (including my own 5/5 review for it). But World War II is not a foreign subject for filmmakers to cover, in fact, it might just be one of the most covered topics when it comes to period cinema, outshining any other historical event in history. The thing about World War II is that it can be strung in a million different directions and never once tell the same story twice. “13 Minutes (Elser)” seeks to expand upon that in its own, minimalist right. While the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and held is general German wide release in early 2015, the film is just now reaching American shores thanks to Sony Pictures Classics. Still, while World War II films can be strewn in any and every direction, the idea that every single story involved int he war being worth telling is debatable among many film circles.

And while “13 Minutes” is a perfectly well-made film, the story it weaves isn’t quite interesting enough to stand sturdily on its own feet.

“13 Minutes” tells the story of Georg Elser (Christian Friedel), a German factory worker who set in motion an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life that, had Hitler stayed in the building as planned for 13 more minutes, would’ve been killed in the bomb blast. Instead, weather forced Hitler out of the building to catch a train when his plane could not fly in the adverse conditions, leavign Elser’s bomb to kill eight civilians in the blast. When captured by the Gestapo, Ulser admits to his crimes, knowing that whether the truth comes out or not, the Nazis would kill him, but the Reich has a hard time believing that Elser committed this nearly war-altering crime all himself, leading him into long, arduous, torturous interrogation sessions. All the while, the film is littered with flashbacks of Elser’s life, focusing generally on the love affair he held with Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), a married woman in his small town.

The thing with “13 Minutes” is that while director Oliver Hirschbiegel knows how to paint the picture of Nazi-era Germany with a great atmosphere and detail, he struggles in making the story and execution surrounding this atmosphere stand out from the pack of other World War II films. While it’s obvious “13 Minutes” is not the best World War II film out there, it could be argued that “13 Minutes” isn’t even Hirschbiegel’s best World War II film, with 2004’s “Downfall” taking that honor not only as Hirschbiegel’s best film, but as one of the best World War II films of the past 25 years. Here, Hirschbiegel does his best with the material, but there isn’t enough interesting material to stretch the film to the 114 minute length it is without hitting some dull spots.

That being said, the thing that keeps “13 Minutes” from falling into dull territory is the wonderfully moving performance from Friedel, who injects a sort of fire into Elser that makes him feel different from the typical “freedom fighter” archetype that pervades so many other films of its kind. Elser doesn’t have any sort of hero complex, but simply finds himself confused as to the public’s general acceptance of Nazi oppression and is pushed to the brink of the assassination attempt that made him the icon he is today as an anti-Nazi fighter. Friedel lets Elser develop naturally, with his best moments coming in his moments of striking vulnerability at the hands of the Gestapo. This isn’t lighthearted stuff, but Friedel brings forth a character that feels alive and real, as any actor should, but doesn’t always do when portraying real-life heroes such as Elser.

There was a point in “13 Minutes” that began the more torturous aspects of Elser’s interrogation where I thought it was going to fall harshly into “Detroit” territory by exploiting the suffering of others for some sort of “gritty” effect. While these scenes are disturbing and occasionally brutal, these are also the scenes where not only do we get to see the steadfast passion in Elser’s convictions, but also with Hirschbiegel’s restrained hand as a director. This isn’t an ostentatious film for the sake of being “out there” and “shell-shocking,” this is a film that shows what it needs to show and leaves the rest to what we can imagine.

But when it comes to the structuring, that’s where I sometimes wished the film had shown more. The film spends a lot of its time focusing on the love affair between Elser and Elsa, which was a fine love story by all accounts, but we never really see the actual planning of the attack outside of a few scenes of Elser practicing blowing up a tree or otherwise. This could’ve been a great moment to go over every single small detail that Elser could’ve went through to construct such a wonderfully calculated attack. Still, while the details of Elser’s attack are still unclear, due to the destruction of many Nazi records, leading to many conspiracy theories about the attack, I can appreciate Hirschbiegel’s method of not giving into such theories. Does that mean this problem doesn’t stand? No.

“13 Minutes” is a film that’s a tough watch, but one that I can’t imagine anyone feeling worser for the experience of it, or for the knowledge. It doesn’t bring much to the table in terms of cinematic or thematic innovation, but it does handle the material with a delicate touch that some filmmakers would be remiss to not take note of. Capped off by a wonderful performance from Friedel in the lead performance as Elser, “13 Minutes” is a film with an important story to tell, one that does benefit from the cinematic treatment, as opposed to a History Channel documentary, but the choices in the focusing of many aspects of Elser’s life as opposed to others make “13 Minutes” a bit frustrating to watch sometimes, as well as keeping it from being as emotionally moving as it seems to want to be. That doesn’t mean that “13 Minutes” is not a film worth watching, it’s just not one that’s going to haunt your thoughts in the same way that “Downfall” did.

Still, as long as Hirschbiegel only improves from “Diana,” I’ll take everything with a smile.

3/5

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Starring: Christian Friedel, Katharina Schüttler, Burghart Klaussner, Johann von Bülow, David Zimmerscheid, Felix Eitner, Rüdiger Klink.
Runtime: 114 minutes
Rating: R for disturbing violence and some sexuality.
Now playing exclusively at Regal Park Terrace.

A Sony Pictures Classics release, Beta Cinema presents, a Lucky Bird Pictures production, in co-production with SWR, ARD Degeto, BR, WDR, Arte, Delphi Medien and Philipp Filmproduction, supported by Filmfernsehfonds Bayern, Medien-Und Filmgesellschaft Baden-Württemberg, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, BLS Business Location Südtirol – Auto Adige, German Federal Film Fund (DFFF), Mibact, Filmförderungsanstalt, “13 Minutes (Elser),” an Oliver Hirschbiegel film

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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