Plot that could have stopped WWII

Seven decades on, World War II continues to throw up historical footnotes that provide interesting material for film-makers.

Christian Friedel (centre) stars as Georg Elser in 13 Minutes.

Christian Friedel (centre) stars as Georg Elser in 13 Minutes.

Last year, the search for stolen artworks produced The Monuments Men while another work of art was at the centre of Woman In Gold.
Now, German director Oliver Hirschbiegel has returned to the subject of Hitler himself after his award-winning Downfall (2004), which details his final days in a Berlin bunker.
In 13 Minutes (StudioCanal) he reconstructs events leading up to and following a failed assassination attempt on Hitler by a rural village carpenter, Georg Elser, in Munich on November 9, 1939.
This is the first time Elser’s story has been told on film and, unlike the plot depicted in Valkyrie (2008), it has remained largely unknown, including within Germany itself.
Elser, who was 36 at the time, planned and carried out the mission by himself.
As the title suggests, 13 Minutes is literally the time in which Hitler changed his schedule and left the Munich Burgerbraukeller before Elser’s bomb exploded, killing eight people.
The war had begun only a few months earlier with the invasion of Poland in September and after Esler’s meticulously planned scheme had been conceived.
At that time resistance to the Nazis, particularly in rural areas such as the Swabian Alps, was restricted to a few left-wing activists.
Esler (Christian Friedel, who played the young schoolteacher in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon) was an outlier with no apparent interest in politics and showing more concern for folk music and a romantic friendship with an unhappy young married woman (Katharina Schuettler).
In fact, he goes out of his way to warn his friends, “Violence has never achieved anything”.
The narrative structure opens with a tense sequence in which Elser plants his time bomb at the beer hall rally where Hitler is to speak.
Esler leaves the scene and heads to the Swiss border, not knowing his target had departed early.
Arrested because of his suspicious behaviour, Esler is soon in the hands of the Nazi police, who work on the theory that such a plot must have been masterminded by a large conspiracy.
One man acting in secret and on his own was not a plausible explanation.
From here, continuous interrogation sessions are interspersed with Esler’s background from his carefree days as a student in Munich to his return to the family village.
The key characters in the prison scenes are police chief Artur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner, the judge in the The Reader) and Gestapo officer Heinrich Muller (Johann von Bulow).
They fail to break Esler’s resolve or his story, and though these sequences are hard to watch they are authentic about methods used at the time.
The overall message heightens awareness of the degree of power the Nazis achieved over people, and their own culpability. This is not an easy reminder for Germans, but does show how far they have faced up to their history.
Rating: Restricted to audiences over 16 (violence and content that may disturb); 109 minutes.

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Michael Otto

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