A new German film sheds fresh light on Georg Elser's assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, with its creators drawing comparisons with contemporary global events, including the war in the Ukraine and Edward Snowden.
Good films about historical events usually tell two stories: They explain the actual event and, on a second level, help contextualize the present. "Elser," which was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and premiered at the Berlinale film festival earlier this year, does just that.
"Elser" looks back on the failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler in Munich in November 1939. However, at the same time, the film was written and directed to appeal to and be of relevance to audiences today, drawing on many familiar themes in today's political climate - such as courage and the desire to take a stand against bigger forces.
'We need a values compass'
"Today the boundary between freedom fighters and terrorists threatens to become increasingly blurred," says Fred Breinersdorfer, who co-wrote the screenplay for "Elser" with his daughter Léonie-Claire. "The events in the Ukraine and the Arab countries are brutal proof that we absolutely need a values compass that allows us this distinction."
Breinersdorfer sees a connection between the historical events underpinning "Elser" and contemporary international events.
A bold individualist
Georg Elser, a craftsman from Germany's southern Swabian region, was a libertarian individualist who felt he could no longer sit idle and watch the ongoing madness in late-1930s Nazi Germany.
However, Elser was not connected to any of the political parties and opposition movements rallying against Hitler. Instead, his was a deeply personal rebellion, which gradually manifested in a decision to take action. The craftsman and talented inventor built a bomb which he hid under the lectern in the Munich Bürgerbräukeller beer hall, where Adolf Hitler was scheduled to give a speech on November 8.
The bomb detonated 13 minutes after Hitler had left the hall. Eight people were killed and the "Führer" escaped with his life. Had Elser succeeded, the politically motivated attack could have changed the course of world history.
However, Georg Elser was soon after arrested, interrogated and tortured. Years later, just before the war ended, he was executed by the Nazis. And, it was clear at the time that Elser was the bomber, the Nazi leaders refused to admit that he could be a lone assassin.
Nazis in the province
The film by Oliver Hirschbiegel recreates the torturous interrogations, showing how steadfast Georg Elser remained in maintaining the truth that he acted alone. However, the Nazis refused to accept that a single perpetrator could have committed such an act - one that almost managed to kill Adolf Hitler.
Between these stirring scenes, the film cuts back to Swabia and Georg Elser's home, revealing the slow conversion to Nazi ideology in the German provinces - with most citizens eventually bewitched by the Nazi hyperbole. The few citizens who openly defied the Nazis were shipped off to concentration camps.
Best known for his film "The Downfall" about the final days of Adolf Hitler - which enjoyed worldwide success and an Oscar nomination - what compelled Oliver Hirschbiegel to Elser's story?
"His clairvoyance," the director says. "Elser is not a politically organized person, but simply a free spirit who believes in individuality and self-determination." At the time, Elser "felt a force which he sees as destructive - a system that was all controlling and believed in the use of violence and the suppression of any individuality or creativity."
This is not Hollywood
There have previously been two film versions of the Georg Elser story: a TV adaptation in the 1960s and a 1989 film starring Klaus-Maria Brandauer. So why the need for a third? Hirschbiegel believes that neither represented the genuine story and setting, and that the Brandauer film fell to the trappings of a Hollywood-esque suspense movie. He says his film is more interested in "the high intensity of the psychology that is created, in the situation affecting an entire nation."
The audience only witnesses the failed assassination attempt and the arrest of Elser at the film's beginning. What follows are flashbacks which try to answer the questions about how Germany came to be spellbound by the Nazis. And - during the interrogation scenes - we witness the pure despair amongst the Nazis that one person could have single handedly brought them down.
Hirschbiegel says that there have long been many conspiracy theories about the assassination attempt: "It has been claimed that Elser was a stooge of enemy intelligence service, a traitor to his own people. Or he had been commissioned by the Nazis to attack so Hitler could be celebrated as immortal."
Dealing with history
These theories have stubbornly persisted in different variations and only been conclusively refuted in recent years. "That an obscure craftsman from Swabia recognizes by himself what is happening in Germany - and does something about it. That is shameful," Hirschbiegel says of Elser's individual bravery. The guilt of the Nazi era "triggered a reflex to sweep this story under the table."
Hirschbiegel and his screenwriters want to show the story for what it is, without the trappings of overzealous cinematic techniques. "Elser" is not a documentary or academic film, but a solid and technically well constructed piece of cinema about a remarkable episode of German resistance against the Nazis.
Parallels to today
So where is the connection between "Elser" and Edward Snowden? What relevance does a film about a lone would-be Hitler assassin have today? The ultimate answer lies in the concept of "moral courage," Hirschbiegel says. "What is the point where one asks: 'I can no longer play a part in this; it cannot agree with my conscience?'"
Naturally, Hirschbiegel does not want to compare Nazi Germany with the United States today. However, he was drawn to the experience of Edward Snowden during the making of the film.
"[Snowden] has witnessed over the years what can happen in a supposedly democratic system, and it troubled him so he pulled out of it and forwarded information on to the public knowing that his life as he knew it would once and for all be over. With regards to his inner urges, Snowden, this highly intelligent and sophisticated man, is very akin to Elser."