Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Reappropriation of the Third Reich

Hitler and Eva Braun in 1942
(Photo courtesy of the German Federal Archive)

If you have ever watched anything on YouTube, you probably at least know about the Hitler videos. You know, those videos where Hitler finds out that Santa isn't real, or gets banned from Xbox Live, or is disappointed with his new iPad--and then rants and raves about his misfortune. Those parody videos that have taken a scene from a film that is conveniently in German, so the parodists can write whatever they want in English subtitles.

The film is 2004's Downfall (Der Untergang in German), and it depicts the last days of Hitler's Third Reich in a bunker in Berlin:

The scene that most of the parody videos use is one in which Hitler finds out that a key piece of his battle plan has not fallen into place, and at this point he is a fair way into realizing that he will ultimately fail. What's interesting about the parodies is that most of them have retained that sense of failure. This one is one of my favorites, because it's kind of meta:

These parodies are pretty funny, I think, but why are they so funny, and so popular? What is so compelling about this idea of taking one of the most hated men in history and putting ridiculous and petty words in his mouth? Is it the ridiculousness itself?

After a bit of research and thinking, I've synthesized that comedy often springs from the juxtaposition of two vastly different ideas or concepts, with the implication that the two ideas are related somehow. So, you take Adolf Hitler, universal symbol of fascism and genocide, and make him throw a tantrum over, not losing his long and bloody war fueled by racism and the ignorance and fear he deliberately fostered in his people, but over his iPad. Boom! Comedy.

In the nearly 70 years since the fall of the Third Reich, the world has become somewhat desensitized to the horrors of that time. Many of those now living who were alive back then were likely too young to grasp the full magnitude of the evilness of this idea, that an entire race of people should be brutally murdered solely because of their heritage, and the desolation and violence that that idea wrought as it spread.

We are far enough removed from that time that we can make jokes about it; we can make Hitler a buffoon and a cult figure, make him yell at Kanye West and Lady Gaga and his mother for lying to him about Santa Claus. We are even far enough removed that people have begun to use Hitler's name and the terms "fascist" and "Nazi" as ill-fitting insults, as (a re-subtitled) Hitler finds out:

In his review of Downfall, Roger Ebert commented, "As we regard this broken and pathetic Hitler, we realize that he did not alone create the Third Reich, but was the focus for a spontaneous uprising by many of the German people, fueled by racism, xenophobia, grandiosity and fear. He was skilled in the ways he exploited that feeling, and surrounded himself by gifted strategists and propagandists, but he was not a great man, simply one armed by fate to unleash unimaginable evil."

The power of evil lies in fear. As time has passed and the world has changed and we have begun to laugh, the memory of that particular fear has faded, stripping that evil of its power. Hitler parodies are not evidence, then, of a desensitization, or not only that, but evidence that the world, in some small way, has healed.

The film's director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, responded positively to the parody videos being made of that famous bunker scene, saying, "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. I think it's only fair if now it's taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like."

Hitler will always be a part of history, like Napoleon and Alexander the Great. And like those other two would-be world conquerors, there may come a day, albeit probably very far in the future, mind you, when people forget to hate him. For now, we have a way of humorously expressing common problems in life and our opinions on society and culture.

As a commenter on one of the videos on YouTube, under the name FortitudeOfHeaven, so aptly put it, "Hitler has now become our internet social/political commentator on current events for years to come. His episodes frame the frustrations we face from the setbacks of our time."

And yes, I would kill Hitler for a hot dog.

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