January 20, 2019

Attempt to kill Hitler a close call in ‘13 Minutes’

Looking back, it sometimes seems that momentous historical events — the American Civil War, World War I, the rise of Adolf Hitler — were inevitable, almost preordained.

Only on closer inspection do we discover how quickly enormous catastrophes could have been avoided through some minute circumstance — a missed meeting, a sudden stomachache or a speech that ended earlier than expected.

Such thoughts are at the heart of “13 Minutes,” which examines how a rural German carpenter, planning and working completely on his own, almost succeeded in assassinating Hitler. The attempt — a bombing that missed its mark by some 780 seconds — took place two months after the Fuhrer started World War II but before the conquest of Europe and before the Holocaust claimed the lives of 6 million Jews.

At the center of the movie by German director Oliver Hirschbiegel is Georg Elser. In 1938, he was a 35-year-old carpenter and talented tinkerer in a small Swabian village, where he played in the town band, enjoyed dancing and was popular with the local women. He had been a Communist sympathizer (but never a party member), who observed with growing concern how the Nazi ideology gradually transformed his village and its inhabitants after Hitler assumed power in 1933.

In the movie, Elser, portrayed by Christian Friedel, watches as a woman he knows is forced to sit on the street, surrounded by brownshirts and townspeople, with a sign around her neck that reads, “In the village I am the greatest swine and consort only with Jews.” (It rhymes in German.) He also sees a propaganda film in which Hitler proclaims that, under his rule, every German will have a radio — then a luxury — and the rutted village roads will be paved and lighted.

At a time when highly educated statesmen and pundits are maintaining that Hitler represents a temporary aberration or can be appeased, the carpenter becomes convinced the Fuhrer will plunge Germany into war — and that if nobody else will stop the Nazi dictator, he will do the job himself.

Elser’s plan begins with the knowledge that Hitler addresses his earliest followers at Munich’s largest beer hall every Nov. 8, the date of his foiled 1923 putsch to seize power in the Bavarian city as a base to overthrow the Weimar Republic. Starting in late 1938, Elser visits the beer hall repeatedly, taking careful measurements of the columns flanking the speaker’s podium. After getting a job in an armaments factory, he smuggles out explosives, dynamite sticks and detonators.

As the date for the next anniversary of the 1923 putsch gets closer, Elser labors night after night on his knees, holding a flashlight in his mouth to insert the homemade bomb into the column and connect it to clocks timed to trigger an explosion during what he expected to be Hitler’s usual lengthy speech.

On the evening of Nov. 8, 1939, two months after German troops invaded Poland to ignite World War II, Elser takes a train to the Swiss border and awaits news of Hitler’s death. There he learns that the Fuhrer had cut short his speech unexpectedly and departed for Berlin.

As history shows, exactly 13 minutes after Hitler left the podium, a powerful bomb exploded at the precise spot where the dictator had been standing, killing eight people, including, to Elser’s lifelong regret, a waitress.

As Elser tries to cross the border into Switzerland, something about his behavior and the contents of his suitcases arouses the suspicion of a German border guard, who arrests Elser and sends him to Berlin under guard.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Photo from Wikipedia

Hitler is convinced that Elser is only a tool in a vast conspiracy orchestrated by the British government and demands that he be tortured until he reveals the masterminds behind the assassination attempt. Under the most brutal torture, Elser refuses to give even his name and birth date. Only after the Gestapo drags in his longtime lover, Elsa (Katharina Schuttler), who is pregnant with Elser’s child, does he acknowledge the plot, with himself as the sole author.

Nobody believes Elser’s story, but instead of being executed on the spot, he spends the war years in various concentration camps, ending up in Dachau.

In April 1945, as Hitler’s dream of a thousand-year Reich comes crashing down, the Fuhrer remembers Elser and orders that he be executed by a pistol shot through the neck. As shown graphically in the film, the order is carried out, two weeks before American troops liberate Dachau.

“13 Minutes” is the most recent example of German movies — including “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” and “Rosenstrasse” — showing how individual German men and women stood up against the Nazi regime.

Hirschbiegel, speaking by phone from Vienna, explained that for at least two decades after World War II, most Germans tried to ignore the crimes of the wartime generation, and it took even longer to honor the civil courage of resisters such as Elser. But, he added, there are only a few resisters in every society who embody the spirit of freedom. As an American example, the filmmaker cited whistleblower Edward Snowden, who exposed thousands of secret documents concerning U.S. government surveillance.

“Snowden saw that something wrong was going on and if no one else would do anything about it, he had to do it himself,” said Hirschbiegel, whose filmography includes a remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as well as “Just an Ordinary Jew” and, perhaps most famously, “The Downfall,” recreating Hitler’s last days in a Berlin bunker.

He believes systems are in place in the United States that would prevent history from repeating itself here. “There are some parallels, but I do not believe that the United States, with its democratic roots and its freedom of speech and of the press, would allow a Hitler-like figure to succeed.”

As for today’s Germany? While members of the younger generation don’t want to hear more about the crimes of their forefathers, it’s crucial that they not forget, Hirschbiegel said.

“As Germans, we have to face it that we are the nation of perpetrators,” he said. “We can’t escape history.”

“13 Minutes” opens June 30 at Laemmle’s Royal in West Los Angeles and on July 7 at Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino.