Berlin films celebrate WWII heroes who resisted Nazis

Berlin (AFP) - It may be modern history's greatest "what if?" -- the story of a man who tried to kill Adolf Hitler before the worst of the Nazi tyrant's "total war" and Holocaust.

The drama "13 Minutes", which premiered at the Berlin film festival Thursday, tells the story of Georg Elser, the man who narrowly failed to assassinate the German leader.

It is one of two new films in Berlin that, in the 70th anniversary year of the end of World War II, celebrates the heroism of the few Germans who dared resist the Nazi regime, mostly to be jailed, tortured or killed.

Elser, a carpenter and musician, designed, assembled and planted a sophisticated time bomb that was meant to kill Hitler and his top henchmen in a Munich beer hall on November 8, 1939.

The blast killed eight people, but Hitler survived, having left the scene 13 minutes earlier because of a late schedule change.

The man who could have changed history and likely prevented the deaths of millions was caught, sent to a concentration camp and, days before the end of WWII, murdered on Hitler's orders.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who made the acclaimed 2004 movie "Downfall" about Hitler's final days, said he wanted to set a cinematic monument to Elser, who had long been wrongly characterised as an oddball and loner.

"I truly hope that this movie will help to finally earn Georg the honour, admiration and respect he deserves," said Hirschbiegel.

In flashback sequences, the movie looks at the creeping spread of fascism in Elser's picturesque home village in the Swabian Alps, including loaves of bread with swastikas going on sale and signs proclaiming "Jews not wanted".

"Something needs to be done, soon and radically," says Elser's character, played by Christian Friedel. "Right against the leaders. Someone simply has to stop this madness!"

Hirschbiegel said "there is something shameful about the fact that someone from the common people was the only one who had the balls to say this must be stopped," adding that this was the reason Elser's story had long "been swept under carpet".

- White Rose -

Filmmakers have long been fascinated with those who found the courage to oppose the Nazi death machine.

Steven Spielberg's 1993 Oscar-winning movie "Schindler's List" told the story of a German industrialist who saved more than 1,000 Jews from the gas chambers, while the 2008 movie "Valkyrie" starred Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who tried but failed to assassinate Hitler with a briefcase bomb in 1944.

A new documentary also screening in Berlin, "The Resistors -- their spirit prevails ...", tells the lesser-known story of students who clandestinely authored, typed up and distributed anti-Nazi tracts.

The most famous group was the "White Rose" at Munich university, whose members distributed antiwar pamphlets in 1942-43, calling on the people to rise up against Nazi tyranny.

"Why do German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race?" read one of their messages. "The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals."

The original White Rose leaders -- siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst -- were caught and, after a short trial, beheaded, along with others including their philosophy professor Kurt Huber.

Streets, schools and squares all over post-war Germany have been named after them.

Other activists who survived, aged in their 80s at the time of filming, recount in the documentary how they continued the campaign, leaving leaflets in public phone booths or mailing them to random addresses.

Allied forces later air-dropped millions of copies over Germany.

In an unvarnished series of interviews, culled from 63 hours of footage, they recount their clandestine activities, Gestapo arrests and interrogations, in the film by the late Katrin Seybold and by Ula Stoeckl.

"Everyone at some stage in their lives reaches a point where they have to decide how much more they will take," said Stoeckl, talking to viewers after the screening.

"Even today, when it's not about life and death, people tend to compromise when they don't have to, because they don't want to take risks. That is so human.

"It takes a lot of civic courage and inner strength to decide 'I can no longer look at myself in the mirror', rather than to say 'I would rather not know'."