Before the opening titles roll for “13 Minutes”, we see a kneeling man in a suit and tie holding a flashlight in his mouth crouched down in some kind of tunnel, looking for all the world like an engineer fixing a faulty electrical circuit. We soon learn that he had gained access to the inside of a hollow pillar at the rear of the stage in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, Germany where Adolf Hitler launched his abortive “beer hall putsch” in 1923. The man was connecting a detonator to a massive pile of explosives and his goal was to blow Hitler to kingdom come during his speech later that day commemorating the putsch.
The date is November 8, 1939 and Georg Elser is a factory worker from an impoverished background preparing to do what the students of the White Rose group and the Operation Valkyrie Generals failed to do: overthrow the Nazi system. My first reaction to the film was to see it as a more nuanced and realistic version of Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” but was stunned to discover after consulting Wikipedia 10 minutes into the film that it was based on historical events. George Elser was a real person and the attempt on Hitler’s life did take place. The führer managed to avoid being killed only because transportation snafus made it necessary for him to leave Bürgerbräukeller 13 minutes before the bomb went off.
“13 Minutes” opens on June 30th at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York and is a deeply compelling character study of a man who acted alone. In some ways, he was the counterpart of Otto Hampel, a factory worker like Elser, who left type-written denunciations of the Nazi dictatorship in public places until being captured by the Gestapo. Hampel’s life was commemorated in a film titled “Alone in Berlin” that I reviewed for CounterPunch last December. He struck out on his own after his beloved and only son was killed on the Eastern Front, while Esler acted because as he told his Gestapo interrogators: “If humanity isn’t free, everything dies with it”. Neither man was ideological but you don’t need ideology to oppose evil.
“13 Minutes” was made in Germany two years ago and is finally now being released in the USA perhaps to capitalize on disgust with the Trump administration that while by no means fascist has gathered around it a support network of men who aspire to be the next Adolf Hitler, starting with Richard Spencer. If “anti-fa” has become the buzzword recently for acts ranging from punching Spencer in the mouth to breaking Starbucks windows, the film should be on the must-see list of anybody seeking to follow the example of Georg Elser, especially since he demonstrated such discipline in carrying out what amounted to the ultimate anti-fa action. So meticulous was he in his preparation for the bomb attack on Hitler that the Gestapo was convinced that he was part of a espionage network consisting either of the underground Communist Party or the British military.
Even as the Gestapo beats and tortures him, Elser insists that he was the mastermind and needed no help. They continue working on him just as the CIA continued to work on the prisoners in Guantanamo. Using the excuse of gathering intelligence, the Gestapo and the CIA both attracted sadistic men who derived pleasure out of torturing and killing those who opposed the 1000 year Reich or “the free world”. When they keep questioning Elser why he could oppose someone like Hitler who was raising Germany to new heights, he replies as only a worker could: “Before Hitler, I made 150 marks as a furniture maker. Now I make 85”.
“13 Minutes” was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, who also directed “Downfall”, the film that portrayed Hitler’s final days in a Berlin bunker. What gives the film its authenticity was the screenplay co-written by husband and wife Fred and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer, who also wrote “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days”, a film about the leader of the White Rose movement who like Otto Hampel suffered execution under a Nazi guillotine. In keeping with the film legacy of resistance to Nazism, George Elser is played brilliantly by Christian Friedel, who was cast as an student activist in “White Rose”, a film covering the same struggle as “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days”.
The creative team of Hirschbiegel and the Breinersdorfer adopted a lean and naturalistic look for their work, which helps to ground it in German life of the 1930s. The screenplay is devoid of the melodramatic elements that were on display in the Tom Cruise vehicle “Valkyrie”. It is divided roughly into two mise-en-scènes, one taking place in the Gestapo interrogation room and the other as a series of flashbacks helping to illuminate Elser’s life in a poor and rural village. Just as importantly, the flashbacks detail the social conditions of German workers who opposed Hitler until the totalitarian system became fully entrenched.
Georg Elser was a member of what we might regard as the German precariat of the 1930s. Not long after the film begins, we see him playing the accordion in a small nightclub for a pittance. The only advantage to such gigs was that it helped him meet women, including a married one named Elsa who becomes his one true love after dancing the tango with him on the nightclub veranda one night after his set has ended. Elsa is played by Katharina Schüttler, who also played the haughty wife of a Gestapo officer in “Alone in Berlin”. In that film, she was lectured by Otto Hampel’s wife for living high off the hog while working-class Germans suffered. Like everybody else in the cast, Schüttler is superb.
When the Gestapo discovers a Red Front badge on Elser’s lapel, they of course assume that he was a Communist since this was a mass working-class organization under their leadership. He replies that he always voted Communist because they were for the workers but never joined. In one telling scene, he is out with CP’ers late one night as they are painting “Vote Communist” on the walls of buildings. As their lookout on a far corner, he alerts them when the cops spot them from afar in the act. After they run off pursued by the cops, he picks up a brush and finishes their job.
Elser’s best friend is a Communist named Josef Schurr (David Zimmerschied), who along with his fellow workers has a brawl with some Nazis at the nightclub on another evening. When a bloody but unbowed Schurr spots Elser outside, he raises the possibility of his good friend being too cowardly to fight. Elser replies calmly that violence never settled anything.
As the Nazi dictatorship moves to take control over German society and as it poses a threat to peace in Europe, Elser decides that he has to act even if that means acting alone. He keeps his plan a secret to everybody, including Elsa. After his capture, when the Gestapo challenges his humanistic beliefs by pointing to the deaths of 8 people, some of whom were ordinary workers in the Bürgerbräukeller, he replies that their sacrifice might have been necessary to prevent the deaths of millions.
The arrival of “13 Minutes” in Germany (titled “Elser” originally) was an auspicious occasion. One might have thought that someone hoping to kill Hitler would be a national hero in East Germany but they had no use for Elser since he was an apolitical “loner” only peripherally connected to their movement. Furthermore, if Elser had confided in Schurr that he planned to kill Hitler, the party would have intervened to stop him—even perhaps killing him since Hitler and Stalin were allied at the time in a non-aggression pact.
Elser was also an “unperson” in West Germany in the 60s when the left had little identification with someone who was not part of any organized resistance movement. Meanwhile, the right much preferred someone like Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who was played by Tom Cruise in “Valkyrie”.
Wikipedia refers to conspiracy theories that view Georg Elser as a “false flag” operative who sought to consolidate support for Hitler after the fashion of the Reichstag fire. Today there is an obvious tendency to use the “false flag” prism against just about everything from 9/11 to sarin gas attacks in Syria. Was Elser a Gestapo agent trying to shore up support for Hitler in 1939 when his popularity was at all-time height? This was three years before the allies began intensive bombing runs of German cities and wartime shortages were making life miserable for their citizens. It was also four years before the Wehrmacht would begin to suffer more than 4 million casualties on the Eastern Front. It seems highly unlikely that Hitler would have taken such drastic actions when they were not necessary.
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel discounts conspiracy theories and sees Georg Elser as someone who took considerable risks to oppose a system he found rotten to the core. He told Reuters: “He compares to Snowden today. He’s a man, who without any personal gain, very humble, says this has to be stopped – this can’t go on, this is cutting at our freedom.”
The best thing of course was for Hitler never to have taken power in the first place. While this film review is not the proper venue for a full discussion of the rise of Nazism, I would only say that I have been troubled by “anti-fa” talking points about the need to imitate the German left, which battled the Nazis in the streets. Unfortunately, the German left was divided in 1932—in many ways following the same patterns as today.
Like the Democratic Party, the German socialists cut deals with the opposition rightwing parties to stay in power. In effect, they were the Clinton and Obamas of their day. In 1928, the Socialists were part of a coalition government that allowed the SP Chancellor Hermann Müller to carry out what amounted to the same kind of sell-out policies that characterized Tony Blair and Bernard Hollande’s nominally working-class governments.
As for the Communists, they regarded the social democrats as “social fascists” and even supported a Nazi-sponsored referendum to remove the Prussian Social Democratic government from power in 1929. Pravda wrote: “The result of the voting signified … the greatest blow of all that the working class has yet dealt Social Democracy.” Madness.
It was right opportunism and ultraleft idiocy that helped to bring Hitler to power. What was needed in the late 20s is the same thing we need today: left unity on a principled class basis. That was also true when Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto and will remain true as long as capitalism maintains its death grip on the planet. While we salute Georg Elser for his willingness to act alone, we have to figure out a way to come together as a massive worldwide revolutionary movement or else we are doomed.