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On November 8, 1939, Swabian carpenter Georg Elser planted a time-bomb in a Munich beer hall where Hitler was to speak. If the Führer hadn’t left 13 minutes too early, Elser could have potentially prevented WW2. Until this day, Georg Elser has been largely forgotten. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s new movie ’13 Minutes’ (or ‘Elser’ in German) aims to set the record straight.
I sat down with the director at Hotel Eden au Lac in Zurich, on the occasion of 13 Minutes’ international premiere. My time slot was 12 minutes and the length of a cigarette for pictures.
Mr Hirschbiegel, when was the last time you arrived critically too late?
Hirschbiegel: I’m usually never late. I remember one dramatic situation. It happened ten years ago, during the birth of my first daughter. At the time, I was shooting a movie and had to make a nervous call outside. After hours of waiting, I went back upstairs only to learn I had missed the birth of my first daughter. I was quasi too late. The birth of my second daughter – we got twins – I luckily managed not to miss.
If one mentions the name Oliver Hirschbiegel one thinks ‘Downfall’. And next that infamous Hitler-rant. Blessing or curse?
Hirschbiegel: Most definitely a blessing. It’s a movie I’m proud of. Especially in terms of what it provoked and how it changed perceptions. It was controversal, particularly in Germany. Absurdly, I still have to take the blame for what people in the Third Reich were like. Or rather, what those were like who ruled and controlled the Third Reich. My ‘guilt’ is to have them portrayed as authentically and realistically as possible.
In your new movie ’13 Minutes’, the Führer can only be heard. A deliberate decision?
Hirschbiegel: Hitler as a figure is historically so powerful he can only be told from a distance, via his voice and through all these men and brown masses surrounding him. It’s not a film about Hitler. It’s a film about Elser. I immediately realised I had to lay out Hitler very very carefully.
In ’13 Minutes’ it’s the silence that does most of the screaming. In one of the most memorable scenes, we slowly zoom in on the face of the interrogation-room secretary who, seemingly unfazed, reads a book in the corridor, while Elser is being tortured, we can hear his loud screams. In a closing scene, one of Elser’s nazi-interrogators, Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller, has the other one, Arthur Nebe, head of Criminal Police, hanged. No words are exchanged, the camera keeps mercilessly rolling for what feels like a long, painful 40 seconds…
Hirschbiegel: It’s two minutes.
……during which we witness every single twitch until the doctor eventually notes Nebe’s death. Why?
This is realtime, based on the horrible public hanging videos from Irak you can watch online. Burghart Klaußner (who plays Arthur Nebe, ed.) unfortunately had to watch them too in order to understand what is going on, how they move and how atrocious this situation is. Of course, this also applies to the torture scenes.
The scenes are hard to bear.
Hirschbiegel: I think we as filmmakers have to take on a responsibility when it comes to portraying pain, torture, humiliation, death. In my opinion, most of my colleagues don’t take that responsibility seriously enough. It’s not about overwhelming or shocking the viewer. But you’ve got to tell it as drastically and realistically, as possible. The way they degrade Elser to an animal is exemplary for how inhuman regimes treat human beings. There’s been a discussion going for years on death penalty, if it should be reintroduced and on what circumstances it could be made legal. For me, this is a no-go. No human being has the right to take another’s life. If you want to discuss this seriously you’ve got to know what you’re talking about, in the very least. Torture is absolutely inacceptable. Discussing its conditional introduction is absurd.
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Georg Elser memorial in the garden of Wessensee Social Centre at Schwedenschanze 10, erected on the exact spot where border guards apprehended him – just 25 off the Swiss border fence. The inscription reads: “I wanted to prevent war”
What does Elser stand for?
Hirschbiegel: Elser stands for today. He sets the best historical example for how an individual can make a difference. This man could have saved the lives of 55 millions. Elser’s stance demonstrates it is possible to take action anywhere. Coming back to Germany – it was absolutely possible to see things and take action, despite whitewashing.
(My 12 minutes are over. One last and fast question.)
What makes you instantly happy?
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Christian Friedel, who plays Georg Elser, snaps a picture of Oliver Hirschbiegel at Arthouse Le Paris cinema in Zurich, on the occasion of the international premiere of ’13 Minutes’.