Downfall, director Oliver Hirschbiegel's exploration of Adolf Hitler's final days, succeeded by going deep, fully acknowledging its subject's unimaginable monstrousness while also locating an aggrieved peevishness that made him fascinatingly, horribly relatable. (Can a zillion YouTube parodies be wrong? Well, yes, but not in this case.) 13 Minutes, Hirschbiegel's return to the time frame, unfortunately can't quite manage the same burrowing feat. Although its depiction of courage under titanic pressure is both harrowing and heroic, it never really pinpoints the central character's defining moment.
Beginning with a scary scene of dimly lit bomb construction, the plot follows Georg Elser (Christian Friedel), a seemingly mild-mannered German cabinetmaker apprehended by the Nazis after a botched attempt to kill Hitler during a 1939 Munich speech. (As the film’s title indicates, the margin of error was slim indeed.) While his captors brutally attempt to unravel his insistence that he acted alone, he flashes back to what led him to this point.
Hirschbiegel has never been a director to hold back, and the scenes of torture here are horrible to behold, both for what they graphically show and Friedel’s commendably vanity-free reactions. These extended moments of intensity are only bolstered by Elser’s quieter interactions with chief interrogator Arthur Nebe (an excellent Burghart Klaußner), who seems both dumbfounded by and possibly ever-so-slightly admiring of his prisoner’s will. (As revealed in a grim coda, Nebe’s eventual actions provide the narrative with a darkly ironic final twist.)
So long as the movie is investigating the known facts of the case, it remains compelling. The flashback scenes, however, prove to be the film’s largest stumbling block, depicting the character’s growing sense of injustice via prosaic, disappointingly rote melodrama. What Eiser was ultimately driven to do is captured, often stunningly, by 13 Minutes. Those wondering about why he did it, however, may have to wait for another take.