13 Minutes: …For Good Men to Do Nothing, by David Bax
Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes, based on a Hitler-adjacent true story and therefore representing a return for the director to the milieu that brought him so much acclaim for 2004’s Downfall, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival just over two years ago. Given its age and, of course, the fact that it was made in Germany, it’s impossible that Hirschbiegel could have intended it to be so startlingly relevant to an American audience in early 2017. But from minor details like a notable event taking place on November 8th to major, thematic concerns about how the people of Germany made the rise of Hitler possible, 13 Minutes has become accidentally but powerfully vital.
Johann Georg Elser (played here by Christian Friedel) was a German worker who, in late 1939, constructed and installed an elaborate time bomb in a hall where Hitler was to give a speech. The bomb successfully exploded, killing eight people, none of whom were Hitler. The Führer, it turns out, had left thirteen minutes prior to the explosion. Hirschbiegel starts with the placement of the bomb, followed by Elser’s arrest and subsequent, prolonged interrogation. During this last period, he and screenwriters Léonie-Claire and Fred Breinersdorfer add in flashbacks that come to dominate the narrative, telling the story of the years leading up to Elser’s notorious decision. In these sections, 13 Minutes constructs a miniature version of the main plot in the love story between Elser and the married Elsa (Katharina Schüttler) who, like the country Elser loves, is under the thumb of a vulgar thug. The acting is strong throughout but Schüttler in particular is amazing as a woman who gives her heart away but never loses her brain.
In the opening moments, Elser is kneeling in the dark, clutching a lamp in his teeth, scraping his hands and bruising his knees, grunting with exertion and pain as he hides and sets his bomb. Before we’ve learned anything of his politics or personality, we are introduced to him in a base, animalistic position. Hirshbiegel will employ such visceral strokes throughout 13 Minutes, particularly in the scenes of torture to come after Elser’s arrest. While that approach may superficially recall Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Hirschbiegel seems, with his blend of sacred and profane, to aspire more toward Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, repeatedly framing Elser on his knees, gazing toward God, genuflecting before the cross on his wall.
Whatever Elser is seeking in those moments—guidance before he acts?; absolution after?—is routinely overshadowed by the immediate threats of the fascists who control his life. Here is where the parallels to America’s current dire predicament become stronger. Even after Elser has confessed, the SS persist because Hitler, like Donald Trump, demands the answers he wants, not the truth. When Elser is forced to pose for propagandistic photos, it seems to be both for the benefit of the public and the Führer himself. Not that the public won’t be susceptible to it. We see how, just like President Trump, Hitler rode to popularity by making wildly implausible promises of economic growth for the working class provided they possess the right genetic makeup.
Covering the years from 1932 to 1939, the flashbacks in 13 Minutes not only gives us parallels to our current situation in the early days of an authoritarian regime, it also provides warnings of how we may fail to stop it just as the Germans did. In short, the lesson is that if we want things to get worse, all we have to do is nothing while Jewish centers receive bomb threats and innocent people are kept out of the country because of their religion. When Elsa hears that a local woman has been publicly shamed in the town square, forced to wear a sign around her neck because she had a relationship with a Jewish man, she seems genuinely upset. “Poor thing,” she says, before adding the words that drive nails into the coffin of freedom, “But there’s nothing we can do.”
Later, in another scene entirely and to another character, Elser offers the only response there can be to Elsa’s sentiment, “We can’t wait till it’s too late.” By then, of course, it already is. Because Elser—who starts out as a resolute pacifist—and everyone else failed to stand up for the Jews or the woman in the town square or the Communist party members sentenced to work camps, things worsened beyond belief at a terrifying pace. Hirschbiegel never presents Elser as anything but a hero. Had I seen 13 Minutes two years ago, I might have chided the lack of nuance in reflexively glorifying a killer. But now it’s 2017 and there’s little room left for nuance. We have to do something, speak out, act, let our politicians know how we feel and donate while we still can.
Two people have been arrested for the threats toward Jewish community centers. They weren’t enabled by passivity, they were instead counting on a strong reaction (in the case of the journalist arrested first, he was trying to frame his ex-girlfriend and trumpeting the charges on social media, in the case of the Israeli teen arrested second he kept threatening a variety of places until he started getting media coverage and then repeated what worked). We like to tell ourselves narratives of how our outraged reactions to such acts is just like stopping Hitler would have been, but the particulars of what’s actually going on don’t really fit that.