Killing Hitler Isn't as Easy as It Sounds

We talk to the director of '13 Minutes' about memes, the importance of laughter, and whether he'd kill baby Hitler.

by Larry Fitzmaurice
Jun 30 2017, 7:50pm

Sony Pictures Classics

In November of 1939, an ordinary German named Georg Elser tried and failed to kill Adolf Hitler with a homemade explosive device in Munich. That failed attempt, as well as the motivations behind it, are the subject of 13 Minutes, the latest film by Oliver Hirschbiegel. You might recognize the German director's name from Downfall, a 2004 drama that depicted Hitler's final days. It was nominated for an Oscar, but is mostly remembered for the climactic scene of Hitler totally losing his shit as he realizes that he's screwed, which became the source of a fount of early memes.

We talked to Hirschbiegel about why he decided to make another film about Hitler, how he feels about the Downfall memes, and what he thinks about the debate on killing baby Hitler (really).

VICE: Why did you decide to make this film?
Oliver Hirschbiegel: I was fascinated by this character, because he was always a bit of a riddle to me. He's not political, he's not the follower of an ideology, he grew up in a religious background but he's not a religious man. What he does comes from an inner conviction that he feels something has to be done—that it's all going to end in disaster, and if nobody else does something, he has to. There's not that many examples of that in history. He's nearly clairvoyant—it's a time when [the Nazis] have attacked Poland, but they haven't declared war on the rest of the world.

It's astonishing that he saw clearly what was coming, when the rest of the world was still impressed with Hitler. It's often forgotten that, until at least 1936 or 1937, Hitler was the most charismatic, powerful figure in politics. At the Olympic games in Berlin, everybody raised their arms to greet Hitler—even the Americans, because Hitler gave work to the people and rebuilt the economy. Everybody was in awe.

Is there something instructive to be found in the film as far as current-day political issues are concerned?
The world was very different when I was shooting the film, and it's always tricky to use historical material to tell people what to think and do. I leave gaps for the audience to come up with their own interpretations. I don't like films with a message. I treat my audience as intelligent beings and give them a chance to put one and one together.

Given the success and widespread recognition of Downfall, why did you want to return to this subject matter?
I didn't. It's a very unpleasant subject. I guess I just couldn't resist the challenge to go back to the beginning and show how Nazism slowly creeps into all corners of society—not just in the big city, but in the countryside. Georg is a fascinating character. I identify with him because I have the same beliefs—I never understood the concept of borders, and I was always a curious person believing in freedom of speech. I never understood the concept of racism or anti-Semitism. It's a totally alien world to me, and it is to him too.

Is Georg's story well-known in Germany?
Now it is. That's one of the achievements I'm proud of. Elser did not get the recognition he deserved for decades. It took twenty years until he and his people were properly recognized as resistance fighters. The whole system back then was built on the concept of obedience. You obeyed the orders of your superiors, and anybody who didn't was a traitor.

When the Kent State massacre took place in the US, it took the general public a while to acknowledge that the protesters were victims. Do you think that there's something about humanity that causes us to have delayed recognition when revolution's actually taking place?
It's one thing to recognize it and another to actually do something. In a repressive system, even just refusing to become a member of the party causes great harm unto your loved ones. Before you know it, your children aren't allowed at school anymore and you're cut off subsidies. Actually doing something in the offensive is taking a great risk, and you need a lot of courage to see it through.

I have the highest respect for somebody like Edward Snowden, who knowingly did what he did because he had to. He felt there was something so wrong and nobody was doing anything about it, so he willingly put his whole life at stake. He knows he will never see his parents or loved ones again, but he sees it through. I admire him tremendously. He's not a political person—it comes from his innermost conviction, just like Elser.

In America last year, there was this very brief national conversation surrounding the question, "If you had the chance to go back in time and kill Hitler when he was a baby, would you?" Some of our presidential candidates weighed in on it.

When you hear that, what is your reaction?
That's rather shocking. The idea to kill a baby in itself is so absurd that I wouldn't know how to answer. The way I grew up, my belief is that no human being has the right to take another human being's life—and that continues with all the other human rights. Torture's out of the question. We don't have the right to do something with one of ours that we would not even do to an animal.

Now, if you go into a situation where there's a tyrant who causes an obvious threat to possibly thousands of your own people and other people, that's tyrant slaying. It's still killing a person, but it's for the sake of saving many other lives. As the Bible says, it's just. I would personally still have a big problem with killing somebody, though.

Do you believe in God?
Yes, but I'm not religious. I believe there is an entity, a force in the universe everywhere around the world that writes destiny—that looks after us. My belief is closer to shamanism, you know? Ancient wisdom is what I believe in, and that quickly leads to common sense. It's surprising how often common sense is a great help when it comes to conflict in the world. Stay curious, stay awake, don't stay in your bubble, look to the other side. What's this person's reason? Why is he angry at you? What drives him to do that? What can you do to make him stop and think about it? The minute you talk about something, you start a process that most likely prevents aggression. That's all common sense.

Downfall had a very strange second life on the Internet.
I'm proud of that. There's not a single scene ever been mocked up that many times, ever since we released the film. Basically all of them are tremendously funny—lots of creativity goes in there. Just think of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. What's the best weapon to fight that kind of repression and joylessness? Laughter. The minute you laugh, you're in a good way, right?

Do you have a favorite Downfall meme?
There were so many, but I loved one that was rather recent, when what's his name—for Christ's sake, the now Foreign Minister of the Brits. The key guy supporting Brexit.

Nigel Farage?
Nope, the other guy.

Boris Johnson?
Boris Johnson! Thank you very much. Ah, Christ, my brain. If you want to have a good laugh, go on the internet and check out that mockup. It's brilliant. Everything they say there, as ridiculous as it is, it happened like that. He's losing it, yelling, "What?! We won? We were never supposed to win! What the fuck is going on!" It's so funny and so true at the same time.

Follow Larry Fitzmaurice on Twitter.