German director Oliver Hirschbiegel is likely best known to Australian audiences for helming Downfall (2004), a drama about Adolf Hitler’s final days that earned an Academy Award nomination and hundreds of YouTube memes. Thursday sees the release of his latest film, 13 Minutes, which returns to the subject matter of the Third Reich. The film’s title in Germany is Elser, the surname of protagonist Johann Georg Elser (played by Christian Friedel), a German citizen whose attempt to assassinate Hitler was foiled by a mere thirteen minutes. I spoke to Hirschbiegel about the film, Elser, true stories and the efficiency of German film crews.
What drew you to the project? Were you aware of Johann Georg Elser before reading the script?
I knew about Elser for a long time. And I kept stumbling over him because I kept reading about the Third Reich. I did my research when I prepared Downfall of course, and I stumbled over him again. And, actually, then found new information that I didn’t know about his backstory – but I never had a plan to make a film out of him. He was a fascinating character, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading the script they sent me, because I liked the approach. I read it out of interest – I didn’t read it to go back to the Third Reich. That was not my plan. So this was a chance to find another angle, going back then to the countryside, the early years that had hardly been depicted so far. I knew that I had to do it.
In Downfall, Hitler is very much a central figure. 13 Minutes, on the other hand, marginalises Hitler, who only makes a brief appearance early in the film. The film feels less about Hitler as an individual than the larger threat of Nazism overtaking the country – was it a conscious choice to exclude him from the narrative?
Hitler is not the character to be depicted. Hitler is in every frame, if you will, because the [Nazi] movement is the creation of his energy. So he is there constantly from the beginning to the end of the film. The thing with Hitler, as you see in Downfall, is his charisma is so strong, his energy is so strong, that if you have him in a film as a full-blown character, he pushes away everybody else. And this was about Elser. And Hitler regarded Elser as a personal enemy, so Hitler is there. But you don’t see him.
As soon as you go into Hitler, there’s so many other stories to be told. Because we are talking the years ‘35 to ’39 – if you look just into this chapter of German history, it’s unbelievable. All these aspects and changes that happen there throughout the country. This is a big TV series if you want to tell it all.
Your filmography includes a lot of stories based on or inspired by historical events – in addition to Downfall and Diana (2013), Das Experiment (2001) is inspired by the Stanford Prison Experiment, while Five Minutes of Heaven (2009) revolves around the Northern Irish Troubles. Do you think you’re particularly drawn to subject matter drawn from real-life?
It’s hard to say! The thing is, I read a lot of scripts. Then eventually, I find one that fascinates me – you know, that drags me in, that wants me to tell the story. It seems that the stories that are based on true events… it’s hard to say. Maybe it’s just that they’re better written? I would love to do a gangster story. I would love to do a drama set now, just a creation of fiction. I read stories like that! But they do not grip me as much. So… I don’t know. You decide.
13 Minutes marks your first film in the German industry since 2004. After working on a number of English-language films (in both Hollywood and Britain), which industry do you prefer working in? What are the main differences between the two?
There is no difference, really. I love German crews, because they’re very efficient and we need smaller crews because of that. So I love that, because it speeds up the process. But there are other things that are better in the American world – with the scripts for instance, or the opportunities you get that you could not get with a German film because you really reach wider audiences if you film in English.
English is a dialogue language, which is an advantage in film. I go where the interesting stories are; right now I’m talking with French producers about a film that would be shot 60 per cent in French and 40 per cent in German. It’s a gripping tale and that might be the next one, you know? And the TV series that I’m shooting right now is going to be in German and only like 25 per cent of it is going to be English – this is a fascinating story as well. So I think I go by the story, by the script.
With 13 Minutes, did you have much of a role in adapting the script, or did you essentially use the one you were presented with?
I got the script in quite a good shape and then I started working with the writers: adding scenes, taking scenes out and enhancing certain aspects. Like the torture sequence, I pretty much derived – the hanging as well – certain aspects that needed to be shown in a way that would not have been accused of shying away from certain, uh, unpleasantries. But it was in very good shape when I got it. I loved the structure. I loved the idea of starting with the bomb and then using the interrogation to go back into the past, into the years to find out about this man. I mean, to a certain extent Elser will always be a riddle. I’m getting as close, I think, as possible but he is a bit of a riddle and he always will be in. He’s one in a million, really.
How faithful did you try to be to historical facts?
It’s all true! All of these things are not made up. It’s all based on the facts and the accounts that we have. The thing where you have to take liberties are like, very intimate scenes of the lovers – in the kitchen, or in the bedroom. Of course then there’s nobody there who could report, so you just use the knowledge that you have of the character and you create that. But all these elements – with the son, Elsa (Katharina Schüttler) being his great love, him being her great love – that’s all true, all based on fact.
In an interview with Readers Digest you described a German guard as operating as a “metaphorical figure.” In the context of the scene where Elser stands by helpless as Elsa is beaten by her husband, I was wondering if, similarly, she was intended to operate as a metaphor for Germany under Nazi rule?
It is that, and at the same time we know that Elser, ironically, was a pacifist. He did not believe in violence. So when you finally grasp this tool preventing the husband from being violent, this is like the first moment where he becomes active in the movie – in a way, violent. Both of these aspects are important in that scene: feeling powerless is one thing because this guy is a strong bloke and he would not stand any chance. And he doesn’t have violence in him. He doesn’t believe in that. That, even more so, makes me admire Georg Elser for devising this plan and suffering from the fact that he knows that he will kill people. That other people will die. Deep, deep inside he knows this is wrong: “I must not do this. I don’t want to do this. This is the line that I’ve learned not to step over.” I have the greatest respect for this man.