Interview: Oliver Hirschbiegel, director of 13 Minutes
Matthew Turner | On 28, Nov 2015
13 minutes is available now on DVD and VOD. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, it tells the story of Georg Elser, a carpenter who came close to assassinating Hitler in 1939. We sit down with the Downfall helmer to talk history, returning to the Third Reich and binge-watching Fargo.
How much of Elser’s story were you aware of beforehand?
Funnily enough, I knew basically all the details, but that was more by accident. When I was a young man, I had already stumbled over his case when I was doing research – general research, just for myself, to get a better understanding of what was going on with my country and my people back then, and never really getting sufficient answers. So I just started reading anything I could get my hands on. He was then regarded as having been kind of like a weirdo, a loner, slightly schizophrenic or a psychopath or something, who had this mad idea, this vision that he had to kill Hitler. And it didn’t really make sense to me then, because I saw these plans, the construction of the bomb, him doing it himself, building it himself and then becoming James Bond, sneaking into this venue. And it sounded rather strange that a madman would be able to do all that and then of course you forget it and then years later, you’re a filmmaker and then another couple of years later, you’re asked to do a film about the last days in the bunker, and then you do more research, of course, and then yet again you stumble over Elser’s story, and you go: ‘Oh yeah, that’s an interesting character, one should really make a proper film about this guy.’ Then, you forget it again and then all of a sudden, you get the script! So I knew a lot.
So it came to you as a result of Downfall?
I guess ever since Downfall, they think I’m the specialist on the Third Reich, and I never really wanted to go back there, to be honest. But this one – I had to do it, I knew it. I read it and sometimes when I’m reading a script, I know I have to do it.
What kind of research did you do once the project came to you and what did you learn from the research that you didn’t know beforehand?
Well, most of what I needed to know, I knew, obviously. I went very deep into Georg Elser, I tried to read all the accounts, and there’s new stuff that has been discovered – I went into the original protocols of the Gestapo interrogation [techniques], which were the basis of the [film’s] interrogation scenes. And I had, like, this whole wall of pictures of Elser – there’s not that many actually, there’s about 12. And pictures tell you a lot, like paintings can tell you a lot about a certain time, characters and all that, and I kind of connected with Elser. That was the majority of the work, that and the depiction of the countryside and the state that Germany was in, in the early days when this movement took over, rapidly. I read the description by Jean Genet, for instance, and a very useful source was a film shot by an American, who was granted the right to just randomly shoot in Germany. He always had, like, Nazis with him, but he was just depicting people in the streets, the construction of the autobahn, Thanksgiving celebrations in the countryside, and for me that became a very, very useful source. I hadn’t seen that film – I knew about it, but funnily enough, I’d never seen it. That was very useful. It’s called “Germany, 1937” and it’s on YouTube. You can watch it, it’s amazing. It became very popular in the States back then and it changed the image the Americans of the Germans being so efficient and having a roaring economy. People started having serious doubts about what was going on there.
How did you come to cast Christian Friedel?
We auditioned about 20 top guns in Germany, and I’d always been fascinated by Christian Friedel, ever since I saw him in Haneke’s The White Ribbon. And I didn’t really see him as Elser, but I was just fascinated with this man – he’s an outstanding actor. And then he came and did what he did and it was – the other guys were all good, but he was just Elser. There was no doubt, there was no question about it, and there were like six different television executives involved, two producers, the writers, and we all concurred: Christian was Georg Elser, there was no doubt about it.
Was there something he did in the rehearsal or the audition that really clinched it?
Yeah, that’s just the magic an actor can work – I still don’t know how they do it. I mean, Bruno did it with Hitler. They just become that character. They are that character and you don’t see them act. And once that happens, you’d better go and grab that guy.
You have a Hitler cameo, so to speak, in the film. Were you tempted to ask Bruno to play him?
No. Bruno and I are friends and I would never have dared to ask him. And he would have been stupid to say yes in the first place, right? You can’t revisit that – there’s no way. Not even with the voice, you know?
I thought for a moment you weren’t even going to show Hitler’s face – you’re shooting from behind at the beginning and I thought you were going to leave it to the audience…
Yeah, you see him in the long shots. We know who he is, and the voice is his, and it’s amazing how just the voice has this weird energy.
Oh, you used Hitler’s voice?
That’s the original recording of that speech that he held, yes. We did quite a bit of sound manipulation there to make it sound more ‘now’, you know, because the quality is very bad. But these days you can do things to enhance it and not make it sound that that bad actually. But we are listening to listening to Adolph Hitler, yes.
How important is historical accuracy to a film like this and is there pressure to balance accuracy with entertainment?
Well, the thing is, what you see in the film is basically what happened, so we didn’t have to invent a lot of things. The only things where we took certain liberties were the very intimate moments, like the scenes of Elser and his girlfriend, which obviously you have to invent because there’s nobody there when people fall in love. You know, if there’s just two people in a kitchen, you just have to make it up. But then, you know so much about the characters that you just try to stay as true to them as possible. And aside from that, I try to get it as authentic, as right and as precise as possible. And then sometimes, like in the very end, when the prison guard comes in and talks about Dresden, that’s a liberty we took, because historically, it’s not quite correct. The bombardment of Dresden had happened two months before the moment we depict, but it felt like we needed to give an impression about the state the country was in at that point. Not more than 24,000 people people died that night, but the talk at the time was that 100,000 people got killed by this English bombardment, so it was very important to have that in there.
What was the hardest thing to get right, overall?
Well, it’s the same as with Downfall, you know? Not to make it look like an historical drama, you know, with costumes and you’re looking just into this, you know, ‘This is what it was like then, ha ha, very interesting’, but make it a movie, make it a film, make the audience become part of that, attaching themselves to certain characters, get a sense of what does this smell like, what does it taste like? I think we did a good job on Downfall and I think somehow we even succeeded more on this one, but I can’t really tell you why. I just know I was always trying and that was like my biggest scare, that I wouldn’t get it right, but it seems it worked out.
I very much enjoyed your depiction of the German music scene at the time – the use of music in the film was really excellent. Can you talk a little about that?
It’s a thin line, because if you don’t do it right, it just becomes silly and flat. But there’s something very beautiful about singing songs in the countryside and it was an important thing for young people then. And on the other hand, there was jazz. That’s why I decided to have them just improvise jazz – you know, jazz was already big in the States. They don’t have the notes and they kind of know the tune, so they just improvise, you know? They don’t have a trumpet, they don’t have a saxophone – they’re pretty much like kids now, basically – I wanted to get that across as well.
I liked the tango scene too – I thought that worked very well, the reversal. Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
Yeah, I guess it’s this moment, this long scene when they get him back in and yell at him and they don’t believe a word and they threaten to torture him again. And he responds in a very Georg Elser way, that he makes this joke, ‘Okay, then I’ll say it, Churchill called me…’ And then it turns around and it’s these Nazis being completely stunned and obviously with this total lack of humour, which is the typical thing about the Nazis, there was no humour involved, which is intelligence, or originality, really – no vision. And it’s all in one scene basically. I guess that’s my favourite scene, yeah. And then the other one that I really love is when, finally, he’s a destroyed man, he’s beat, and then he starts singing this beautiful Viennese song, that always gets me. It’s so sad.
How important do you see Netflix and VOD in the future of film?
It’s hard to tell. I love the cinema. I love sitting in the dark room, seeing it on the big screen with a brilliant sound system and having other people around. But it seems times have changed. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Storytelling on film doesn’t mean it has to be on the big screen. I think there will be a revival, but it’s a definite thing that would be a big shift too, that people would just go On Demand, they’ll watch it on little things, like my kids, they’re nineteen, twenty. None of these kids have television sets in their homes. They go to the movies, yes, but aside from that they watch everything on the computer. For me, as a storyteller, it doesn’t really make a difference.
And it means that, ultimately, the film is available at the click of a button…
Yes, but the one concern, of course, is that the contracts are right and that the artists and the production companies are not being in a lesser position, because it takes a lot of money to make a film, that’s the most important thing. And Netflix generates a lot of money and is now investing a lot of money into production. So, for me it’s hard to say if this is going to be a good thing or not, but then, what’s life about? The future is the future – we have to adjust, you know? It will be what it will be.
Do you watch anything on VOD, and if so, what have you been watching that you’ve enjoyed?
The last one was binge-watching Fargo, the series. It’s amazing how they got that right. It’s completely different characters, basically, but the world is the same and the way they take it is just fascinating. I think it’s very good, it’s excellent.
What’s your next project?
I’m in prep for a six-part television series, a mini-series. Actually the first half of a 12-part mini-series. It’s set in East and West Berlin in 1973, and it’s a German story written by an English writer, to be shot in German, only a third of it is in English. It’s interesting. Of course, we don’t have enough money but it will be good!
13 Minutes is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – and to buy and rent from iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, TalkTalk TV Store, Google Play.