13 Minutes tells the compelling story of Johann Georg Elser’s attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler on Nov. 8, 1939. Starring Christian Friedel, the 110-minute film explores the political climate in 1930s Germany, and one man’s desperate attempt to change history. The film was written by Leonie Claire and Fred Breinersdorfer, whose parents were Nazi supporters, and produced by Boris Ausserer. Oliver Hirschbiegel directed.
Nov. 9, 1939: By order of the Nazi government, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, ripped across Germany. The infamous attack on businesses and buildings owned by Jews—and attacks on the wider Jewish community—left little doubt about Hitler’s intentions towards the Jews of Germany and, by extension, all of Europe.
Had Elser—carpenter by trade, ladies’ man by inclination, musician and critic of German realpolitik—succeeded in his November 8th assassination attempt, Kristallnacht, and most of the subsequent events of World War II beyond the German invasion of Poland, might not have happened.
13 minutes invites the viewer to interwar Germany. The Nazi industrial war machine had created virtually full employment, displayed German modernism at the 1936 Olympics, and witnessed a rebirth of German pride and an acceptance of Hitler. It was a unique moment in German history. In comparison to life a decade earlier, Germany was experiencing an economic boom. The average German may have been aware of “the Jews” and knew about the infamous yellow star and limitations decreed by Nazi laws. But many Germans knew few Jews personally, and were probably not unhappy to be able to express deep-seated, generational anti-Semitism.
Event by event, 13 Minutes reveals cracks in this portrayal of German life at the end of the 1930s. Alcoholism, infidelity and difficulties running business are realities. Lakeside outings, concerts, campaign-style rallies and a façade of economic well-being mask undercurrents of social upheaval and anxiety. Society is dedicated to and dominated by a seemingly unstoppable, unrelenting Nazi propaganda effort.
Elser was one among a minority of Anti-Nazis willing to stand against German social norms. He witnessed the demise of German democracy and families afraid of their own children, taught by the Nazi Youth movement to spy on parents on behalf of the Führer. Voices raised in dissent landed their owners in jail, or worse. The Nazi machine was in full operation.
Elser’s Nov. 8, 1939, attempt to assassinate Hitler was itself filled with symbolism. The date marked the Nazi’s first attempt to overthrow the German government, on November 9, 1923. That failed putsch landed Hitler in jail. By 1939, with the Nazis’ rise to power complete, the date had become an important political anniversary. Hitler was scheduled to appear at the Munich Beer Hall and then fly to Berlin. Had his original schedule held, the course of history would have been changed. Hitler would probably have died.
Instead, on the evening of Nov. 8, 1939, man and nature combined to prevent that scenario. Heavy fog closed the Munich airport, so Hitler was rescheduled to take the train following a beerhall commemoration. To make the train, he began his speech 30 minutes earlier than scheduled.
Elser’s bomb was hidden in a column behind the podium where Hitler spoke. It exploded at 9:20 p.m. Eight died and many were wounded; Hitler was already en route to the train station. Elser tried to cross the Swiss border at 8:45 p.m., but was arrested by customs agents, as he was carrying evidence of bomb-making that condemned him. Interrogation and threats to his family followed. He eventually confessed.
During the ensuing six years, some 50 million lives, including the majority of European Jewry, were destroyed.
How would those 13 minutes in a changed schedule have changed history? Would Auschwitz, Dachau, Pleshko and Bergen-Belsen have become historical familiars? Would different weather or a changed train schedule have made a difference? Would the Holocaust have occurred?
Elser was a series of contradictions: He voted for the KPD (German Communist Party) and was a member of an anti-democratic combat unit, yet attended church and sought democracy.
13 Minutes follows Elser to SS headquarters in Berlin, where he was tortured by the Gestapo. Nazi leadership refused to believe he had acted alone. Finally convincing his captors that the attempt involved no one else, Elser was sent to Dachau Concentration Camp. In April of 1945, he was shot to death on the explicit order of Adolf Hitler. The film ends with his murder.
Elser was forgotten for decades. After the war, he was accused of having been a Nazi agent killed to maintain his silence. He was accused of having been part of a sham, some claiming the attempted assassination was a Nazi propaganda trick designed to enhance Hitler’s image of immortality.
There were 42 attempts to assassinate Hitler. Only Johann Georg Elser, a carpenter; and later Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a military officer, came close to succeeding.
A memorial has been established in Elser’s hometown of Königsbronn.
13 Minutes if currently playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.