Exclusive interview: Oliver Hirschbiegel talks about his new film 13 Minutes

Tom Browne

We talk to Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel about 13 Minutes, a biopic of failed Hitler assassin Georg Elser.

German director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 film Downfall, focusing on the dying days of the Second World War, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and provoked an intense debate over its intimate portrayal of Hitler and his inner circle. Nearly ten years later, Hirschbiegel has returned to Nazi Germany with 13 Minutes, a harrowing and brilliant biopic of Georg Elser, an unassuming German worker who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1939. We talked to Oliver Hirschbiegel about the film and its difficult subject matter.

Reader's Digest: You came to massive public prominence in 2004 with Downfall, your film about the last days of Hitler. Since then you made a couple of films with big-name stars, but what made you want to revisit this period of history with 13 Minutes?

Oliver Hirschbiegel: Honestly, it was the script. I knew about Georg Elser before and I always thought he was a fascinating, enigmatic character, who hadn’t been properly recognised. I never thought about making a film about him, but then I was given the final draft of this project that had been worked on for years. I read it out of curiosity, not really wanting to go back there, but I knew immediately how to do it and how to tell the story.

 

RD: Why has Elser’s tale been so overlooked, especially compared with Claus von Stauffenberg and the July bomb plotters, who also tried and failed to kill Hitler?

OH: Well, you must remember that it was at least 20 years before Stauffenberg was properly recognised. There was something in the German perception that secretly regarded the July plotters as traitors, even though this wasn’t loudly voiced. Then there’s the Prussian element—the July plotters were aristocrats and members of the elite, and these people have a lobby that fights for them. Georg Elser, on the other hand, was a little worker from the countryside. He didn’t have a lobby. And the Nazis quickly spread the rumour that he was a communist working for the British and American intelligence agencies. Then the Brits and Americans spread the rumour that he was actually a paid puppet of the Nazis who planted the bomb to prove that Hitler was invincible and protected by God. This kind of stuff stuck for many decades. But the most important point is that Elser was the only one who saw what was happening in 1938 and actively did something to stop it. In retrospect, this was an embarrassment, especially as he wasn’t the kind of intellectual who normally stands for heroic resistance. All of these things combined to make sure he was forgotten.

 

RD: Without giving anything away, there’s a hint in the film that one of the protagonists in the July bomb plot was at least partially inspired by Georg Elser’s actions.

OH: Well, not really. That would be great, wouldn’t it? The person you’re referring to was a very able policeman and investigator, but he was 100 per cent Nazi and was involved in some of the most horrible Nazis crimes. However, these people were largely opportunists and cowards, and he realised in 1944 that things weren’t going well for Nazi Germany. So he decided to switch sides and become part of the Stauffenberg plot.

 

RD: Georg Elser himself is quite a complex character. His background story is told in flashback, but it’s clear that he isn’t a political person—he’s quite feckless and not always sympathetic.

OH: He’s like an artist, really. I always felt close to him—and I feel even closer now—because he’s a free spirit who doesn’t really understand the concept of boundaries. In the 1960s and 1970s, we would have called him a hippy. What happens around him goes against everything he worships and loves, so he has to do something. But even when he does it, he’s not a political person. He does it for the sole reason of wanting to prevent lots of other people—not only his people—from suffering. He sees the bloodshed coming.

 

RD: Christian Friedel is really wonderful as Elser. Did you always have him in mind for the main role?

OH: No, we called in around 18 top guns—pretty much any good, high-profile actor who matched the requirements for Elser. But I’ve always been a big fan of Christian, ever since I saw him in The White Ribbon. He’s brilliant in that, but even I was surprised by what he did with Elser. He didn’t just come up with a great performance; he became Elser, which is something that hardly ever happens.

 

RD: The structure of the film is interesting as well, because it’s apparent very quickly that the assassination attempt has failed—there’s no attempt to build up suspense around that. Instead, it’s about the process of interrogation, the stance that Elser takes and how his character is revealed though that.

OH: Yes, that’s how they got me interested. It’s a very smart approach—I never would have thought of telling it that way. That’s the angle that made it work for me.

 

RD: It also, of course, means that there are a number of torture sequences that are very difficult to watch. Was it tough filming those for everyone involved?

OH: Yes, definitely. Even though everyone does their job and is focused on getting it right, it deals with an energy that’s very unpleasant. One actor has to beat Elser on the back, and he’s actually beating Christian, who’s wearing a protective thing on his back. But just the act of doing that—the humiliation and the degradation—is horrible. It’s the same with the hanging scene.

 

RD: I was actually going to ask about the hanging scene next, because that’s the moment that really stuck with me. You hold the camera for a long time on this man being slowly hanged to death. Why did you choose to film it in that way?

OH: Because I’m sick and tired of people dying like nothing on the screen, or people talking about the death penalty as a possible option. They don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know what it means to kill a human being. And I cannot teach them—I just know that it’s a terrible act to take another person’s life. At least people who think differently from me should be confronted with what it means, and what you see in that scene is the time it takes for somebody to be at least unconscious (it takes a little longer until they’re dead). I felt I had a duty, especially as a German director depicting Gestapo atrocities. Imagine if I hadn’t done it that way.

 

RD: Another scene that stands out is when Elser is being questioned and an SS officer storms into the room and angrily beats his head against the desk. It’s the suddenness and extreme violence of the Nazi regime that comes through at these moments.

OH: Yes, the man who comes in is like a death angel. He’s a direct connection to Himmler and Hitler. Himmler would never have dirtied his hands or even touched a prisoner. But this guy stands for the whole system—this total belief in violence, this absence of any kind of respect for a human being. He’s a metaphorical figure in a way.

 

RD: You’re a German film-maker dealing with this very dark chapter in German history. Have you seen attitudes change in how these events are tackled within your own country?

OH: You’ve got two attitudes in Germany. Firstly, there are people who will say, “We’re tired of this. We don’t want to deal with it any more. That was then and this is now.” But, on the other hand, films dealing with the subject have great audiences and ratings. The TV series Generation War, for example, was tremendously successful in Germany. As for me, my position is clear: we’ll never get away from this, so we’d better keep making films about it and coming up with better questions and answers. We’ll still be talking about it in 100 years from now.

 

13 Minutes is released in selected cinemas from July 17th.