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Bernd Schuller/Thimfilm

13 Minutes (2015)

A lone individual assembling his bombs without obvious radicalization or a network of coconspirators tests the character of all nations, even when that nation is Nazi Germany and has already thrown its character into the trash. Oliver Hirschbiegel's willingness to look the Third Reich in the eye — proven in "Downfall" — carries over into "13 Minutes," the less showy story of Georg Elser's failed attempt to assassinate Hitler motivated by nothing more complex than basic unease: no allies, mania or contingency plans involved. No wonder the gentlemen poking hot wires under Elser's fingernails can't figure him out.

The film's German title is just Elser's name, an indication of the relatively late-arriving efforts to give him some recognition; the English title is a measure of his failure, the time interval by which he missed his target — which might as well have been 13 days. This makes the story something of a tragedy, although Christian Friedel gives Elser a stoicism that you have to take on faith as being true to life. The problem is that it's a stoicism familiar from many other actors in the clutches of the Reich. Conventional staging and familiar dynamics are no crime when making a point; and Katharina Schüttler plays Esler's lover Elsa with deep humanity. But the vexing question of whether the Nazis are now adequately tackled by safely comfortable storytelling remains open.

On the other hand, safe storytelling allows the real-life ironies to explode on cue. Mr. Hirschbiegel and his writers have spotted that they don't need to hammer the contrast between Elser's single-handed efforts to place a bomb above Hitler's podium and Claus von Stauffenberg's infinitely more complex attempt to get Operation Valkyrie off the ground, five hellish years later; or indeed flaunt the contrasts between "13 Minutes" and a Hollywood edifice like "Valkyrie." History takes care of that, by arranging for one of the gentleman applying pliers to Elser to be Colonel Nebe (the always excellent Burghart Klaußner), who ended up siding with von Stauffenberg and was duly dispatched into the cosmos by his own side ahead of even Elser himself. Narrative fiction is helpless before ironies like that; the most you can hope for is that filmmakers spot them for what they are.


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