The German historical drama “13 Minutes” opens with the sound of strenuous human grunting, accompanied by the regular ticktock of a mechanical timer. It’s Nov. 8, 1939, several hours before an explosive device, planted by Georg Elser, is set to go off, almost killing Adolf Hitler, who, as history tells us, had left the building in which the bomb was planted mere minutes earlier (hence the film’s English title, which has been changed from the original, limply un-thrillerish “Elser”).
After Georg (Christian Friedel) has been arrested while trying to slip across the Swiss border with a pocketful of bombmaking plans, the film flashes back to 1932, when we are introduced to Elser several years before he has become radicalized. The movie is, as it turns out, less a white-knuckle drama about the nuts and bolts of a failed political assassination than it is a psychological portrait of resistance, made all the more timely — and creepily, almost offensively, unsettling — given the current political climate in the United States.
Why release this film, which came out in Germany two years ago, here and now? It’s doubtful that many Americans have been clamoring to know more about Georg Elser, yet the film burrows more deeply inside his psyche than even the curious might have wanted to know, tracing his love life, his family background and his gradual conversion from an apolitical musician and carpenter from the Swabian countryside to a monomaniacal would-be assassin who came within minutes of changing the world.
Friedel’s performance is top-notch, especially when the film flashes forward again to scenes of his post-arrest interrogation and torture, which are hard to watch, but in which the previously soft and sensual Georg shows himself to be a surprisingly tough kuchen. Also good: Burghart Klaussner as Georg’s chief inquisitor, Arthur Nebe (who himself went on to become involved in the 1944 plot to kill the Fuhrer, led by Claus Von Stauffenberg).
But much of the film dwells on Elser’s relationship with Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), his onetime lover, former fiancee and the abused ex-wife of a drunker lout (Rüdiger Klink). These passages add emotional texture to the tale, but little suspense.
That seems to be by design. In the end, “13 Minutes” isn’t about the timing or logistics of one man’s plot to kill Hitler at all, but about what made that man tick.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains violence, torture, brief sensuality and coarse language.
In German with subtitles. 110 minutes.