A man is placing sticks of dynamite into a wall and setting a timer. Intensely focused and sweating profusely, he's under a lot of stress, and no wonder. The date is Nov. 8, 1939, the place is Munich, the target is Adolf Hitler.
Inspired by a plot against der Führer that most people have never heard of, a lone wolf endeavor that came within the titular “13 Minutes” of succeeding, this Oliver Hirschbiegel-directed German drama tells a fascinating but inevitably grim story, both more interesting and more downbeat than one might anticipate.
Given that the director is Hirschbeigel, best known in this country for the Oscar-nominated “Downfall,” source of endless ranting Hitler memes, it is not surprising that “13 Minutes” is a solidly made, straight-ahead depiction of events.
What is unexpected, besides the details of the out-of-nowhere plot and unwelcome scenes of realistic torture and death, is the unusual personality and character of plotter Georg Elser.
As played by Christian Friedel, previously seen in Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” Elser is a most unlikely plotter. Though left leaning, he was resolutely apolitical. A small-town carpenter and clockmaker from Königsbronn in the Swabia region of Bavaria, he did not fit anyone’s profile of a potential assassin.
So how did this man get to the position where only an unforeseeable, last-minute schedule change kept him from assassinating Hitler and preventing the Second World War?
Unlike some films based on history, “13 Minutes” does not play games with us. We see almost at once that Elser’s scheme did not succeed and, as written by Fred Breinersdorfer and Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer, the film goes back and forth between his capture and interrogation and flashbacks to his pre-plot life.
Doing the interrogating are a classic good cop/bad cop duo. The good cop is Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner), head of Germany's Criminal Police, while, inevitably, the bad guy is chief of the Gestapo Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow).
The Gestapo being first among equals, when Elser refuses to talk, Müller's fairly graphic methods of torture are tried first, an agonizing situation, which frankly the film would have been better off without. Anyone who needs convincing at this point that the Nazis were not softies is probably not worth reaching.
A more experienced interrogator, Nebe has better luck, largely because he threatens to torture Elser’s family as well as Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), the key woman in his life, if answers are not forthcoming.
Before the mechanics of the plot get detailed, we see Elser's carefree life, starting with pleasant time spent across the border in Switzerland. Something of a free spirit, he's a musician as well as an incorrigible womanizer who has zero interest in commitment, romantic or otherwise.
When family troubles bring him back to Germany, Elser hangs out with old friend and zealous Communist Josef Schurr (David Zimmerschied), but women are still his extracurricular interest of choice.
Elser’s life changes radically when he meets Elsa, who is attracted to him but married to a thuggish alcoholic lout. An affair begins anyway, and a key focus of “13 Minutes” is the complexities of that risky relationship.
“13 Minutes” also deals with the specifics of Elser’s plot, and the way his confession frustrates interrogators Nebe and Müller.
For though Elser insists he acted on his own, which happens to be the truth, Hitler is convinced that he is only the front man for a more wide-ranging conspiracy. He puts his underlings in the Kafkaesque situation of trying to get the stubborn Elser to confess to something that was not true.
Perhaps the most interesting question “13 Minutes” raises but doesn’t totally answer is why this ordinary, nonpolitical German got so radicalized by Hitler’s policies that he attempted this cataclysmic act.
A man who always went his own way, Elser seemed to see things clearer than his fellow countrymen. “Why do they all follow this gangster?” he asks at one point, foreseeing bloodshed in the future and adding, “Someone has to stop this madman, it has to happen.”
To his interrogators, Elser insists “I am a free human being. I have to do what’s right.” In fact his position was so unpopular for so long that as recently as 2014 German Chancellor Angela Merkel made news when she acknowledged Elser’s heroism. Why so few Germans saw things the way he did, or acted on their feelings if they did, is a question no film can answer.
Rating: R, for disturbing violence and some sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles