question of the day: Why do the Hitler ‘Downfall’ parody rants strike such a nerve with us?

BBC News Magazine this week ran a thoughtful, if mystified essay on the popularity of those YouTube Hitler rants (perhaps to coincide with this month’s 65th anniversary of Hitler’s death and the end of the Nazi regime). You know the ones: they borrow a scene from the amazing but serious-as-a-heart-attack German film Downfall, about Hitler’s last days, and add in new subtitles so that the Fuhrer appears to ranting about being booting from Xbox Live, or Sarah Palin’s resignation, or — my favorite one so far — the Season 2 finale of Torchwood.

The meme just won’t die, and in fact, the more that Constantin Film, which released the film, cracks down on the parodies, claiming copyright violation, the more of them spring up… like this brilliant one, in which Hitler rants about the Hitler Downfall parodies being targeted by Constantin Film.

Why are the parody rants so popular? BBC News can’t quite figure it out:

In some parodies, Hitler is being the public figure that is lampooned – Hitler becomes Hillary Clinton losing the nomination, or BBC chief Mark Thompson having to face Jeremy Paxman. But in many of the parodies, Hitler is simply reacting to events, the relegation of Sheffield Utd or Usain Bolt breaking the 100m record.

It is not an obvious subject for humour. Yet for millions of internet users there is something hilarious about this scene being turned on its head.

There is no clear explanation why this category of parody should have proved such a hardy internet meme, says technology writer Bill Thompson.

“It was just lucky. There is no particular reason why Downfall should have taken off.”

It seems to me that what’s being parodied in these rants isn’t Hitler but the passion with which some people complain about some things. You know, like how the ending of Torchwood Season 2 is surely nowhere near as bad a thing as the fall of Berlin and the Third Reich must have been for Hitler, but some people acted as if it were.

And there are probably many other factors at work, too. What do you think? Why do the Hitler Downfall parody rants strike such a nerve with us?

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Fri, Apr 16, 2010 8:41am

I think not just the passion with which some people complain about things, but the bratty, childish, entitled to more – always more – and the way I want it, dammit spirit that so many fannish complaints seem to take on. And because that’s what Hitler was, I think – somewhere at the core of the monster stomping across the globe being evil, was a denied child demanding that the world run the way he ordered. So the parodies mock both – the fan, and Hitler.

Fri, Apr 16, 2010 9:07am

And because that’s what Hitler was, I think – somewhere at the core of the monster stomping across the globe being evil, was a denied child demanding that the world run the way he ordered.

That reminds me of the end of Deathly Hallows–the part where Harry’s in limbo–and what the destroyed fragment of Voldemort’s soul turned out to look like. Great insight.

Fri, Apr 16, 2010 10:46am

Part of it is the recognition that this ranting lunatic was one of history’s greatest monsters, and that using this creature to express some form of geekish outrage a kind of fair use.

Part of it is the need to mock that monster: there’s a reason Mel Brooks keeps slapping Hitler in his movies, it’s an act of defiance saying “Ha ha, you just got punk’d Adolf baby!”

We’re laughing at the realization that the scene of Hitler’s epic meltdown (that his army is now powerless, and his refusal to accept the fact it *was* all his fault) is at once pitiful, shocking, and… hilarious. We’re watching a jerk get his just desserts: it’s just a pity his just desserts included 50 million dead.

Fri, Apr 16, 2010 1:16pm

The weird thing is though, have you noticed how many of these have Hitler acting as the voice of reason?

A lot of the ones I came across (With notable exceptions like the Xbox ban) have Hitler hammering out the uncomfortable truths at his shamefaced generals. The original, however, is an ego-fueled incompetent lashing out at his general and nation as having failed his mighty vision, as in the original.

Perhaps it’s just because he gets more lines, but the change to competence in so many of these is kind of odd.

Der Bruno Stroszek
Der Bruno Stroszek
Fri, Apr 16, 2010 2:44pm

With regards to Hitler acting as the voice of reason, the best explanation I heard of it is that it’s a friendly ribbing of nerd rage. You’re meant to watch it and think “Yeah! The Avatar trailer was terrible!” or “Man, I agree with him about Torchwood series 2!”, then think “Hang on, I’m agreeing with Hitler…” It allows people to vent their disproportionate anger over pop-culture fluff while simultaneously recognising that it’s a bit excessive.

Fri, Apr 16, 2010 4:41pm

possibly fear? we laugh at it because it’s hard to understand how the holocaust happened and we try and reduce the figure at the centre of it

It’s like Osama Bin Laden jokes. It helps to deal with 9/11 by making fun of him because then he’s not just this scary unknowable evil.

Fri, Apr 16, 2010 5:04pm

I think it’s more the reaction of the people in the room (or sent out of the room) We can all remember bosses or parents going postal and how frightening it was, and I think we relate to their discomfort.
When you put it into a modern context, we still relate to the anxiety of an authority figure losing it.

Fri, Apr 16, 2010 7:28pm

Let’s face it, how many public figures act like rabid dogs on film? Our choices are limited for this particular form of satire.

Fri, Apr 16, 2010 8:20pm

Der Bruno: Interesting point. :)

Fri, Apr 16, 2010 8:43pm

I really think it’s because so few English-speakers speak or understand German. I’ve seen similar joking around with faux-French and don’t find it at all funny because I understand enough French to know that’s not what’s being said.

Pat Mustard
Pat Mustard
Mon, Apr 19, 2010 6:17am

The Daily Mash has turned this nicely on its head (as per usual) by claiming that someone in Germany’s been adding the Downfall dialogue (in the form of German subtitles) to video footage of one of Gordon Brown’s rants in Parliament..

‘It was just a bit of fun..’

James Van Fleet
Mon, Apr 19, 2010 6:01pm

I think it’s the simple incongruity of a period-heavy dictator screaming about modern trifles like the HD-DVD/Blu-Ray war. There’s also a growing interest, from me, in the ways that people can play with the form. Hitler screaming about all the “Downfall” parodies was unexpected and inspired.