When Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s brilliant and overwhelming Hitler: A Film From Germany was released in the United States more than two decades ago, it was retitled Our Hitler. That’s a provocative construct—it suggests that there are other Hitlers, ones who might contradict, or at least soften, the official version of the Führer as a genocidal madman. Such interpretations are very nearly taboo, and perhaps they should be.
As Hitler’s infamies recede, however, his biography will inevitably be recast. A few years ago, Max portrayed the pre-Nazi Hitler as a frustrated artist who might have expressed his pathology in less destructive ways if he’d gotten better reviews, and Moloch patronized and partially exonerated Hitler as a ridiculous (and perhaps even uninformed) prisoner of events. Both movies were silly in their different ways, but both had the cinematic—if not moral—advantage of being novel. By comparison, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 156-minute Downfall is an overblown footnote, intense yet fundamentally unsurprising. Like another new German film about the Nazi era, Sophie Scholl: The Last Days, Hirschbiegel’s docudrama uses recently discovered information to add very little to the historical record.
Screenwriter Bernd Eichinger’s new source is Traudl Junge, a member of Hitler’s steno pool who finally divulged her memories of life with the Führer in her dying days. Junge’s recollections are the subject of a documentary, Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, seen locally in 2003, and a few of her remarks open and close Downfall. (Her final message actually evokes Scholl, an anti-Nazi student protester who was executed in 1943.) It’s hard to compete with Hitler when he’s onscreen, especially when portrayed with the conviction and apparent accuracy that Bruno Ganz brings to the role. Yet Hirschbiegel periodically shifts the spotlight to others: wide-eyed Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), of course; high-pitched and cartoonishly girlish Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler); and the piece’s Lady Macbeth, Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch), who chillingly slaughters not her enemies but her own children, six angelic specimens of the supposed master race.
Naturally, there are also various male supporting characters, but the only ones who really register are symbolic Everymen: the codgers and kids who face the Soviet troops overrunning Berlin on their way to Hitler’s bunker. (Ironically, the film’s few street scenes were shot in St. Petersburg, the site of a brutal German siege back when it was known as Leningrad.) These near-anonymous pawns embody the Germany that the movie’s Hitler would just as soon see destroyed—the one that has committed the ultimate affront of losing the war for him. As if to cement an alliance between the naive and not fully culpable, in the final sequence Junge takes the hand of one boy who thought better of dying for the fatherland.
The role of the German people is repeatedly upstaged by the spectacle of Ganz’s Hitler, his wounded hand twitching as he shifts from rage to acceptance, from delusion to realism, and from hatred of the world to affection for Eva and Traudl, his pretty Bavarian favorites. According to Downfall, the mercurial monster arranged his own suicide even as he ordered the counterattack he insisted would win the war, and he offered his favorite secretary a cyanide pill while apologizing, “I’m so sorry I can’t give you a better present.”
This Hitler, however, is nothing new. Hirschbiegel and Eichinger’s modest addition to the lore is to depict the Führerbunker as a place where methodical plans for self-immolation proceeded amid a frantic bacchanalia, and Hitler’s fervent desire for Germany’s destruction contrasted his paternal desire that Junge and the other women—all except his doomed bride—should escape and survive. After all, Downfall suggests, it wasn’t their fault.
The film even hints that the whole mess can be attributed to Hitler and a relatively small number of true believers, exemplified by the diabolically mesmerized Mr. and Mrs. Goebbels. At least it has the decency to end with the voice of the actual Traudl Junge tentatively accepting responsibility for her youthful actions.
Only a few figures in human history deserve a segue from Adolf Hitler, and Mark Bittner is definitely not one of them. This gentle soul, a San Francisco would-be musician who says he hasn’t “paid rent in 25 years,” finally found his calling as the protector of a flock of runaway (or throwaway) parrots and their offspring. Judy Irving’s documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill observes Bittner’s relationship with Mingus, Connor, Tupelo, and the other birds, most of them cherry-headed conures. Bittner came to town from Seattle at the close of the hippie era, which for him never quite ended; the parrots arrived more recently, but from farther away: Ecuador, Peru, and Argentina, although there are now subsequent generations that were hatched in the neighborhood where their champion squatted for three years in a small cottage.
Bittner is unapologetic about anthropomorphizing his feathered companions and unswayed by the argument that the parrots are non-natives that should be discouraged or even exterminated. Early in the film, he faces a skeptical observer who asserts, not illogically, that the birds can’t be wild because Bittner feeds and names them. Yet The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is more honest than Winged Migration, which staged scenes and manipulated behavior to create its ostensibly nonfiction account of avian behavior. Irving uses no special effects—only a deep immersion in her protagonist’s parrotcentric worldview.
As Bittner eventually concedes, not all the birds are wild. A few stay with him because they are unwilling or unable to survive outside. The prime example of this is the bipolar Mingus, who lives in a milk crate in Bittner’s small home. Others come and go, becoming more or less dependent as time goes by. Principal among these is altruistic Connor, the lone blue-crowned conure, who would never have become acquainted with the cherry heads if he hadn’t been captured and shipped to the United States.
To answer the skeptic more emphatically than Bittner does: It’s not true that scientists don’t name wild animals they observe; it’s actually a common practice. (I once met a whale researcher who was able to tell me the “name” of an animal I had photographed off the coast of Massachusetts.) And Bittner, with Irving’s help, makes a good case for his anthropomorphic assessments, revealing the depth of his observations of the individual parrots. This is not just some guy who sends Daisy to the doggie shrink because she chewed up a slipper.
Having effectively lured the viewer into Bittner’s little paradise, the film shifts moods suddenly when he’s expelled from it. Evicted from the cottage, the amateur zoologist must make arrangements for the parrots he will leave—or can’t leave—behind. Bittner’s final remarks, which include his account of one bird’s death, are unexpectedly poignant. Though stopping short of the delight in predation of some bloody-taloned nature docs, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill doesn’t pretend that death isn’t central to existence. Yet life goes on, as the film underscores with a sweetly ironic coda to Bittner’s observations of the cherry heads’ mating behavior. CP