In a bunker beneath Berlin, in a room crowded with staff, a tired Adolf Hitler leans over his desk. Tracing a finger across a map, an officer speaks:
“Sir, the Russian army is almost to Berlin. They are approaching from all sides but will be entering the city from the south by nightfall. We have also spotted their infantry moving in from the east with several tank divisions and about 2,000 soldiers.”
“I don’t care about any of this,” Hitler replies, waving his hand distractedly. “Tell me about the Packers game today.”
Meanwhile, in a bunker beneath Berlin, in a room crowded with staff, a tired Adolf Hitler leans over his desk. Tracing a finger across a map, an officer speaks: “Your birthday celebrations will be mostly held here and around here. This year has a sellout crowd, hence the expansion into this area here. But unfortunately Pink has pulled out as Justin Timberlake’s support act.”
“No problem,” Hitler replies, waving his hand distractedly. “Michael Jackson can just do a longer set instead.”
Meanwhile, in a bunker beneath Berlin, in a room crowded with staff, a tired Adolf Hitler leans over his desk. Tracing a finger across a map, an officer speaks: “You take the 405 and exit Sunset Boulevard. When you get to Coldwater Canyon Drive, you make a left turn. Everyone is to park their car in the back so Jessica doesn’t see them. Jessica will enter the house around 8:30 and everyone screams, “Surprise!”
“OK, perfect. I’ll have Tony pick me up. We’ll go to the surprise party together.”
But Hitler is about to learn, to his great displeasure, that Tony Romo and Jessica Simpson are no longer together, that Michael Jackson is dead and that the Packers “lost on a last-second field goal. For the second straight game.” And he will go mad, and he will go mad, and he will go mad.
Putting words in his mouth
Welcome to what has variously been called the Hitler Internet Meme, the Hitler Rant Parodies and the “Downfall” Mash-ups, an unusually hardy strain of viral video in which a scene from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 film “Der Untergang” (“Downfall”), about the last days of the Third Reich, is given new subtitles in order to comment on current events or to express displeasure with some recent bit of technology or pop cultural product. Although these clips began appearing as far back as 2007 -- I first learned of them last summer when a friend posted “Hitler finds out Michael Jackson has died” to Facebook -- the meme resurfaces regularly in the news, as it did recently when the National Republican Congressional Committee posted a link on its Twitter account to a video that pictured Hitler and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) as making common cause on healthcare.
In the original version, Hitler, played by Bruno Ganz, is informed that Berlin is surrounded by his enemies and that the counterattack he was expecting will not come; Hitler launches an extravagant, expectorating rant against his generals, followed by an exhausted, angry admission of defeat. With new subtitles, the four-minute scene has become such various works of amateur joke-making as “Hitler Finds Out Kanye West Disses Taylor Swift at the VMAs,” “Hitler Learns About the New Spider-Man Villains,” “Hitler vs. Hannah Montana,” “Hitler Rejected for Joker in Batman 3" and “Hitler Finds Out No Camera in iPod Touch.”
He learns unhappily that there is no Santa (“Why do you try to destroy my childhood innocence?”), that Twitter isn’t working (“How can they expect to monetize this stupid site if it’s down half the time?”), and that Dumbledore has died (“Who will kill Voldemort now? Bloody Neville Longbottom?”). He learns that Bernie Madoff has lost his money, that the real estate bubble has burst all over his investments, that he has been banned from Xbox Live, that he has gotten a girl pregnant, that his car has been stolen.
The best of them can be pretty funny; the worst are illiterate displays of spite laced with unprintable expletives. (Or, displays of expletives laced with spite.)
Like most every other tool, venue or network on the Internet, the Hitler meme adapts itself to a host of contradictory uses and opinions; it serves the insightful as well as the random, the righteous along with the wrongheaded, the clever with the stupid.
Many of the clips feel logically flawed: To use Hitler as the vessel through which you vent your spleen seems odd: It would make sense to have him espouse a view counter to your own. The maker of “Hitler Reacts to the Government Run Healthcare” did work that out -- Hitler and Pelosi are imagined as allies and, oddly, as allies against President Obama for his willingness to abandon the public option (which Hitler sees as the way to bankrupt and enslave the country). The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reacted to the NRCC’s Twitter link to the clip by demanding “this vile Tweet” be immediately removed,” coining a phrase funnier than anything in the clip itself. Said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), “When will the Republican Party stop trivializing the actions of Hitler?”
Hitler as cartoon character
Whether or not his actions have been trivialized, there is clearly no end to the trivializing of Hitler himself, within the Republican Party or without it. (I mean, there is a website called “Cats Who Look Like Hitler.”)
We have, in fact, been trivializing him for some time now, in movies, cartoons, comic books and video games. Indeed, the real worry is, as his person and crimes pass from living memory, he may one day be taken seriously only by the idiots who think, for whatever sorry reasons, that there’s something there to admire.
Hitler has a long history as a cartoon character, dating back years before World War II and, indeed, continuing throughout the war itself; keeping him trivial -- small, human, mortal -- was in a sense part of the war effort. Charlie Chaplin got into his skin as “The Great Dictator” (1940); Moe Howard took him on in the Three Stooges’ “I’ll Never Heil Again” (1941); he was made a cartoon literally in “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” with Donald Duck and “Herr Meets Hare,” with Bugs Bunny.
In my time, only a couple of decades after the end of the not-quite-a-Thousand-Year Reich and the revelations of the Holocaust, Nazis were becoming stock comic characters: “Hogan’s Heroes” was on TV and “The Producers” was in the theaters. And Hitler has continued to be a useful guest star -- you can find him in “South Park,” “Futurama” and “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.”
But such appearances are ever emptier and rarely controversial.
Naturally, there is a rant for that. In “Hitler Finds Out Americans Are Calling Each Other Nazis,” the Fuhrer is informed that “the people in America call everyone they disagree with ‘Hitler.’ To the point that it is completely trite and meaningless.”
“What good is it being this boundlessly evil,” Hitler wonders, “just to be turned into a cartoon character?”