Vanishing Point: "Downfall" and the Filmed History of Hitler


Late last month, it very nearly ended: a meme that had, weirdly, endured for years. When the copyright notices finally came to YouTube, and some of the videos were removed — well, they came far too late, and too few. Many of the videos survived, further extending the life of a joke that was never that funny to begin with.

If, as Mark Twain contended, nothing can stand against the assault of laughter, then the “Hitler Reacts” meme was tantamount to poking a dead horse. And yet, for years, everyone felt compelled to pick up their poking sticks and get to work on it. The conceit is one of shallow dissonance: scenes from 2004’s Downfall, a carefully researched German-Austrian film depicting Adolf Hitler’s final days/meltdowns, are re-”translated” such that a rant about, say, the ineptitude of academy-taught generals can be recalibrated as a fiery condemnation of Kanye West. The onslaught of bad news in Berlin in the spring of 1945 became a recognizable torrent of web-based gossip, in-jokes, opinion and backlash. Adolf, in a groaningly meta moment, has even railed against the popularity of his own meme. That iteration lands with a thud, as do the rest, no more than spasms of neuroticism and insecurity among online subcultures. Of course our digital ephemera matter-even Hitler is aware of this stuff.

This analysis assumes that we’re not simply seeing a shadow of ourselves in Hitler’s juvenile apoplexy over being banned from Xbox Live, or the animating of an argument that is better crystallized in Louis C.K.’s formulation that “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.” Our angst concerning an item as objectively miraculous as an iPad is a mystery worth plumbing, sure, but the modified Downfall clips can only regurgitate the phenomenon itself, their satiric mojo wholly contingent on a perverse fascination with the 20th century’s most reviled mutant. Moreover, it would take an uncommon finesse to turn a sincere and nuanced portrayal of the man into a worthy one-sided joke.

To date, no YouTube artist has proved equal to the task.

Not that it needed doing in the first place. We’ve been laughing at Hitler since we realized there was a Hitler to laugh at. Around the time Fritz Lang was forced to encrypt and allegorize the contagion of Nazism in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), a spazzed-out, homicidal and consistently foiled Führer was popping up in Warner Brothers cartoons. But with Chaplin’s infamous first talkie, The Great Dictator (1940), Adolf Hitler (or “Adenoid Hynkel,” in a cuttingly Hebraic approximation) became more than a joke for stateside audiences, worse than just some fussy, furious buffoon: he was now a racist, megalomaniacal, influential buffoon who danced sincerely with an inflatable globe to Wagner.

Its controversy-sense atingle, United Artists panicked halfway through production; Chaplin held fast to his aims, adamant that Hitler be lampooned without mercy. Harry Hopkins, a top FDR adviser, showed up to encourage him. The U.K. first moved to ban the film in keeping with an appeasement policy, then welcomed it as propaganda. It became Chaplin’s highest-grossing picture and an enduring demolition of anti-Semitism-though he would later insist that had he known of the genocide then unfolding, he could not have made it.

Ernst Lubitsch had no such qualms in filming the all-time greatest send-up of Nazism, To Be Or Not To Be (1942), at a time when people were far less willing to accept fascists as clowns. The film’s suspenseful/farcical plot, which hinges on a Polish actor’s ability to imitate Hitler, drew the same charges of trivialization that Spielberg would levy against Roberto Benigni’s bittersweet Life Is Beautiful (1997) in arguing that no good Holocaust movie should come across as funny, or indeed entertain at all. Need I bother throwing this hypocrisy back in his face? To lose sight of Hitler and his minions as amusing grotesques is to miss the verifiable truths upon which Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1968) turns: laughter is a subversion of the otherwise impenetrably serious-watch a couple minutes of Valkyrie (1998) to see what I mean-and comedy grows through the cracks of tragedy like a weed.

It’s no accident that these seminal films play with the idea of Hitler doppelgängers, Hitler as performance, Hitler being not so much a man as a body of symbols and gestures and twisted rhetoric that galvanized a humiliated nation. While weak Hitler comedy relies on shock, frivolity and invention, strong Hitler comedy acknowledges tension, takes real risks and pulls on a thread of extant silliness until the whole uniform unravels: The forelock of hair always loosened on cue by his vigorous nods. The overripe, overrehearsed rhythms of his speeches. Chaplin’s dictator, to drive the point home, speaks a frothy Teutonic gibberish that is then ‘translated’ into too few English words-the missing 90%, we can safely assume, is filler spectacle.

The “Hitler Reacts” meme essentially mangles that gag while never getting so much as a toehold on the trending topic du jour. It doesn’t help matters that inane 21st-century setbacks find no harmony when layered onto the trauma of World War II. Even while those minding the copyright said otherwise, Downfall’s director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, sanctioned these videos, in spite of their failure as pop-cultural commentary. “The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons, making them real and their actions into reality,” he said. “I think it’s only fair if now it’s taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like.”

You can’t blame him for being diplomatic; most artists welcome wider exposure. Still, I wonder if he actually believes that an effort to de-mythologize a mass murderer is in any way compatible with a movement to make him the official mascot of fanboy ire.

(characteristics rated on a negative to positive scale of -10 to 10):

Flexibility: -4.8

Insight: -9.1

Aesthetic: 1.7

Redundancy Potential: -10.0

Confusing To Outsiders: -5.3

Final Meme Score: -27.5

Miles Klee is on your Internet.