Oliver Hirschbiegel believes Georg Elser is the biggest riddle in World War II history.
He’s the man who almost killed Hitler — the closest attempt in history.
With no accomplices, he created a bomb that detonated 13 minutes after Hitler — who cut his speech to Nazi leaders shorter than anticipated — left Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller beer hall.
As Elser was quickly arrested by German authorities, Hirschbiegel said the testimonies and motives of the free-spirited man will never fully be known. The few documents of his interrogations that survived the war don’t tell the full story.
“What we’re using is what the Nazis wrote down,” he said. “Is it really what he said?”
Hirschbiegel directed the film 13 Minutes, chronicling Elser’s life prior to and after his plot. (It is now playing at the Ritz Five.)
Hirschbiegel said he was always fascinated by his story.
“I knew about him a long time before Downfall” — his 2004 hit about Hitler’s final days — “and then, when I was preparing for Downfall, I stumbled over him again and read a little more,” he recalled.
After Downfall, he avoided going back down the Nazi-era path.
“As you can imagine, it’s not a very pleasant subject,” he admitted. But once reviewing a new script, he couldn’t resist.
The film focuses on the early days of the Third Reich, following Elser’s life growing up as an apolitical pacifist and uneducated man in the German countryside.
“What fascinated me was the idea to go back and go at the very beginning where it all starts and deal with the poetry and the beauty of life in the German countryside, something that the Nazis abused and used for themselves,” he said, “but certainly is a defining element of the German people still.”
Elser acted out of instinct, Hirschbiegel added.
“There was something bigger, something stronger within that him made him develop this plan. And that’s very unusual — you rarely find [that] in life and in history,” he noted.
Hirschbiegel compared Elser to Edward Snowden, who “acted on the same impulse.”
“Snowden was never a political person,” he said. “He just thought that something really terrible was going on, and felt a duty to reveal it and put his whole life, his whole future in danger.”
Within the first few minutes of the film, you see Elser preparing the clocks and ticks of the bomb the night before Hitler’s speech. Elser (played by Christian Friedel) is introduced with distressed grunts and bloody knees from crouching in tight spaces as he is holding a flash bulb in his mouth.
The suspense is over. The viewer knows the bomb went off too late.
But the plot continues through a series of flashbacks of Elser in the countryside, illustrating how the events over the years of the carefree musician’s life led to his murderous plot. With financial crises and a love affair — with, Elsa Härlen (played by Katharina Schüttler) — the Nazi party quickly consumed the joys of daily life.
Hirschbiegel said minimizing the suspense shed light on what life was like then in Germany and what it meant to do something against these people.
“Elser would have never understood a thing like anti-Semitism because for him people were just people,” he explained. “He didn’t understand the blockheaded way of thinking in the countryside. Anti-Semitism comes from that blockheaded kind of thinking, which is not much more than just fear of the unknown.”
13 Minutes was released in Germany two years ago. Sony waited to release it in the U.S. — and then President Trump was elected. Hirschbiegel decided to push it back even later.
“The film probably gets a different sort of recognition that I would have never expected,” he said, though neither he nor the film compare Trump to Hitler or Nazism, but rather that “something is happening within the society that is unsettling for a lot of people.”
Elser was forgotten in German history for some time, Hirschbiegel noted. He wasn’t officially recognized until the 1990s.
“There’s hardly any examples like him in history because he solely works out of his heart, not a dogma or political ideology,” he said. “Like Joan of Arc, she had to stand for what she felt so strongly. And Elser, even though nobody knew him then … had the same thing. I have a great admiration for him and his will, his character. I don’t know anybody who’s remotely like that, and I certainly wouldn’t have the guts to even think in the direction he did.”
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