Endtime for Hitler: On the Downfall of the Downfall Parodies
“He was on again last night,” 11-year-old Denise tells her dad, Jack Gladney, in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise (1985). “He” is Hitler; Gladney is a professor of Hitler studies, the academic discipline he founded, at the proverbially named College-on-the-Hill, somewhere out in a Midwestern stretch of the Great Flyover.
“He’s always on,” says Gladney. “We couldn’t have television without him.”
“They lost the war,” Denise fires back. “How great could they be?”
“A valid point. But it’s not a question of greatness. It’s not a question of good and evil. I don’t know what it is.”
Good question. Why does Hitler’s wild-eyed apparition keep materializing on History Channel episodes—and, until the filmmakers sent YouTube a takedown notice, online, in homemade parodies that grafted topical subtitles onto a scene from the movie Downfall (2004), about Hitler’s last days?
The easy answer is that Hitler left an inexhaustible fund of unforgettable images; Riefenstahl’sTriumph of the Will alone is enough to make him a household deity of the TV age.
The Third Reich was the first thoroughly modern totalitarian horror, scripted by Hitler and mass-marketed by Goebbels, a tour de force of media spectacle and opinion management that America’s hidden persuaders—admen, P.R. flacks, political campaign managers—studied assiduously. A Mad Man in both senses, Hitler sold the German volk on a racially cleansed utopia, a thousand-year empire whose kitschy grandeur was strictly Forest Lawn Parthenon. Early on, when the Reich was just an evil gleam in his eye, he spent hours dreamily sketching uniforms and insignia; when it became a reality, he “directed great blocs of human beings against mighty stone backdrops and reveled in the exercise of his demi-talents as actor and architect,” writes Joachim Fest, in his incomparable biography, Hitler. No mass-murdering dictator has so indelibly tattooed his image onto the mass unconscious, for the simple reason that Hitler, unlike Stalin or Mao, was an intuitive master of media stagecraft. David Bowie’s too-clever quip that Hitler was the first rock star, for which Bowie was widely reviled at the time, was spot-on. Nearly every Hitler biography includes the well-known series of photos of Adolf in his pre-Fuhrer days, test-driving verklempt poses—clench-fisted, glittery eyed attitudes he later reviewed, presumably adding the most emotionally charged (which is to say, photogenic) ones to his onstage repertoire. Looking at these images, we think: An Actor Prepares.
All of which is to say: the media like Hitler because Hitler liked the media. Although he remained, at heart, a 19th-century bourgeois wannabe—a “revolutionary against revolution,” as he put it—desperate to drag industrial modernity back to the misty, Wagnerian premodernity where he spent much of his fantasy life, he prefigured postmodernity: the annexation of politics by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, the rise of the celebrity as a secular icon, the confusion of image and reality in a Matrix world. He regarded existence “as a kind of permanent parade before a gigantic audience” (Fest), calculating the visual impact of every histrionic pose, every propaganda tagline, every monumental building (anticipating, even, the far-off time time when his imperial capital would crumble into picturesque decay, its fluted columns wreathed in ivy, an eventuality foreseen by the Nazi starchitect Albert Speer in his “theory of ruin value“).
But is this why the Downfall parodies got such traction in the public mind?
Partly. But Hitler’s role in holding a dark-carnival mirror up to the 20th century has a lot to do with it, too. His psychopathology is a queasy funhouse reflection, straight out of Nightmare Alley, of the instrumental rationality of the machine age. The genocidal assembly lines of Hitler’s death camps are a grotesque parody of Fordist mechanization, just as the Nazis’ fastidious recycling of every remnant of their victims but their smoke—their gold fillings melted down for bullion, their hair woven into socks for U-boat crewmen—is a depraved caricature of the Taylorist mania for workplace efficiency.
At the same time, Hitler endures because he puts a human face on an evil so incomprehensibly monstrous it confounds psychological analysis or historical contextualization, inviting us to make sense of it in theological, even mythic, terms. As the Tom Brokaws of the world never tire of telling us, the Good War™, fought by the Greatest Generation®, was the last morally uncomplicated conflict in the modern age, a Manichean struggle between good and evil. Sure, the good may have had some blood on its hands, depending on your politics—the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fire-bombing of Dresden, the odd war crime straight out of Inglourious Basterds—but the evil was evil through and through, right down to the infinitely dense, endlessly collapsing black hole at its moral core.
Maybe that’s why we keep summoning forth Hitler’s jittery ghost from the afterworld of newsreels and Eva Braun’s home movies and Triumph of the Will: because there’s something perversely comforting about Hitler’s unchallenged status as the metaphysical gravitational center of all our attempts at philosophizing evil. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida raised a wry eyebrow at the proposition that language is anything but a system of signs that pass the buck of meaning meaning from one dictionary definition to another. By his lights, the unconsidered presumption that, somewhere over the rainbow, there’s a fixed and final meta-meaning that anchors all meanings—a Transcendental Signified, Derrida called it—was just a figment of the metaphysical imagination.
But isn’t that what Hitler is—the incarnation of Evil with a capital “E”? Antichrist Superstar? The Psychopathic God, as Robert Waite called him in his Freudian psychobiography of the same name? Perhaps that’s why he continues to mesmerize us: because he flickers, irresolvably, between the seemingly inhuman and the all too human.
Then again, Ron Rosenbaum notes in his masterful study, Explaining Hitler, making sense of Hitler as an evildoer so incalculably evil that he stands outside the human frame of reference—the “Hitler exceptionalism” of Emil Fackenheim, who argues that Hitler represents “an ‘eruption of demonism’ into history” that demands an explanation from God—is as self-serving as it is seductive. By denying everyone’s capability, at least in theory, for Hitlerian evil, we let ourselves off the hook. Ironically, in recasting Hitler as a superhuman horror that moved among men in human guise, we grant him what he always wanted: ubermensch—or at least ubermonster—status.
Yet Hitler, paradoxically, is also a shriveled untermensch, the protypical nonentity; a face in the crowd in an age of crowds, instantly forgettable despite his calculated efforts to brand himself (the toothbrush mustache of the military man coupled with the flopping forelock of the art-school bohemian). “A curious note of inferiority, a sense of stuntedness always overlay the phenomenon of Hitler,” writes Fest, “and not even the many triumphs could dispel this. All his personal traits did not add up to a real person. The reports and recollections we have from members of his entourage do not make him tangibly vivid as a man; he moves with masklike impersonality through a setting…”
As Fuhrer, Hitler was gnawed by the fear that the mask of the Great Leader would slip, revealing the art-school reject and flophouse denizen of his Viennese days, a starving postcard painter sneered at by the bourgeoisie. “He was constantly tormented by the fear of seeming ridiculous or of making a faux pas that would cause him to forfeit the respect of members of his entourage, down to his janitor,” Fest writes.”Before he ventured to appear in public in a new suit or a new hat, he would have himself photographed so that he could check the effect.”
Thus, there was always a comic distance between the public image of the world-bestriding, godlike Fuhrer and his Inner Adolf, a nail-biting nebbish tormented by flatulence. Knowingly or not, the Downfall parodies dance in the gap between the two. More immediately, they rely on the tried-and-true gimmick of bathos. What makes the Downfall parodies so consistently hilarious is the incongruity of whatever viral topic is making the Fuhrer go ballistic and the outsized scale of his gotterdammerung-strength tirade.
In the film, Hitler (played with uncanny accuracy by Bruno Ganz) pitches one of his legendary apoplectic fits when his generals inform him that SS Obergruppenfuhrer Steiner never executed the Fuhrer’s order to push the Russians back from Berlin’s city limits. Translation: the Thousand-Year Reich is a big, fat pile of fail, a realization that makes Hitler go eye-bulgingly batshit while his generals turn to stone, frozen in terror.
With the judicious use of subtitles, YouTube users been mining the scene for comedy gold since 2006, making the man synonymous with the murder of millions the butt of a water-cooler joke. In four minutes, the Wagnerian Architect of Doom dwindles into a pop-eyed old crank, throwing the Mother of All Shitfits about Michael Jackson’s death (“All we’re going to hear on Radio One for the next two months will be play after play of ‘Heal the World’ until we’re all shitting rainbows”), Sarah Palin’s resignation as governor of Alaska (“Every time she winked, I thought it was just for me”), the FUBAR’d design of Windows Vista, the cosmic injustice of getting banned from World of Warcraft, and “grammar Nazis“:
You guys are like some kind of grammar authorities or some, some kind of grammar… strict police…dammit! What’s the word I’m looking for? I’m thinking of an authoritarian regime or something with the streets filled with, like, uniformed soldiers that arrest people for the slightest offense. It was on the tip of my tongue, goddamn it. Well, you know what I mean.
The Downfall meme dramatizes the cultural logic of our remixed, mashed-up times, when digital technology allows us to loot recorded history, prying loose any signifier that catches our magpie eyes and repurposing it to any end. The near-instantaneous speed with which parodists use these viral videos to respond to current events underscores the extent to which the social Web, unlike the media ecologies of Hitler’s day, is a many-to-many phenomenon, more collective cacophony than one-way rant. As well, the furor (forgive pun) over YouTube’s decision to capitulate to the movie studio’s takedown demand, rather than standing fast in defense of Fair Use (a provision in copyright law that protects the re-use of a work for purposes of parody), indicates the extent to which ordinary people feel that commercial culture is somehow theirs, to misread or misuse as the spirit moves them. In the world where mass culture has given way to microniche markets and the culture wars are dissolving the body politic into socially isolated demographic clusters, copyrighted narratives and trademarked characters—Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Twilight—are the closest thing we have to a folk culture, the connective tissue that binds us as a society. Bruno Ganz gave Hitler life, but now he belongs to all of us, a psychopathic sock-puppet to be ventriloquized as needed.
Trouble is, when we raise Hitler from the dead to do our bidding, we’re cutting a deal with the Devil, even if we’re only asking Adolf to bring the lulz. Some critics of the movie took the filmmakers to task for humanizing Hitler, however inadvertently, playing on our sympathies for a frail, forlorn old man, compulsively trembling, abandoned or betrayed by all, as he told it. (“Poor, poor Adolf, they’ve all deserted you, all betrayed you,” Eva Braun lamented.) In like fashion, critics of the Downfall parodies have questioned the moral calculus of turning the architect of the Holocaust, a hellworld where SS men made a gleeful game of spearing Jewish babies with their bayonets, into a sit-down comedian. In the viral videos, Hitler often seems less like the butt of the joke than an actor named Adolf who is in on the joke, doing some weird strain of improv that, again, makes him more sympathetic: Andy Kaufman after one too many days in the fuhrer bunker.
In a 2006 interview with Der Speigel, Mel Brooks parried these charges deftly, making the case for the politics of Hitler parodies. When Jewish America saw The Producers, Brooks’s 1968 comedy about an exuberantly tasteless musical called Springtime for Hitler, Brooks received “resentful letters of protest,” he said. ” ‘How can you make jokes about Hitler? The man murdered 6 million Jews.’ But The Producers doesn’t concern a concentration camp or the Holocaust. You have to separate it. For example, Roberto Benigni’s comedy Life Is Beautiful really annoyed me. A crazy film that even attempted to find comedy in a concentration camp. It showed the barracks in which Jews were kept like cattle, and it made jokes about it. The philosophy of the film is: people can get over anything. No, they can’t. They can’t get over a concentration camp. ”
On the other hand, said Brooks, “You can laugh at Hitler because you can cut him down to normal size.”
SPIEGEL: Can you also get your revenge on him by using comedy?
Brooks: Yes, absolutely. Of course it is impossible to take revenge for 6 million murdered Jews. But by using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths. [...] We take away from him the holy seriousness that always surrounded him and protected him like a cordon.”
As it happened, some of those who dared poke fun at the Fuhrer, when the Nazi terror was rocking the world, felt the same way. Shielded, for a little while, by his Aryan bona fides, the popular cabaret comedian Werner Finck used the stage of his Berlin cabaret Die Katakombe as a satirical bully pulpit, pricking Nazi bigwigs and getting comic mileage out of everyday life under the jackboot of a totalitarian regime. When Nazis in the crowd heckled him with catcalls of “Dirty Jew!,” Finck gave them the retort ironical: “I only look this intelligent.” In time, however, Finck’s jokes earned him a stay in a concentration camp; ordinary Germans, unprotected by celebrity, could pay a far higher price. In the Third Reich, cracking a political joke was deemed an act of treason, and both teller and listener were subject to sentences ranging from imprisonment to capital punishment. “Between 1934 and 1945, the People’s Court handed down 5,286 death sentences, many of which went to political joke tellers,” according to Lynn Rapaport in her essay passage on “Humor as Political Opposition Against the Nazi Regime” (Gray Zones: Ambiguity and Compromise in the Holocaust and its Aftermath). On July 28, 1944, Father Josef Muller was hanged for telling a joke about a dying soldier who wants one last look at the leaders for whom he laid down his life. When the nurses place pictures of the Fuhrer and Reichsmarschall Goering on either side of him, he says, “Now I can die like Jesus Christ, between two criminals.”
Needless to say, the Nazis were unamused.
Yet, risking the noose, some Germans laughed off their fears and mocked the Orwellian boot stamping on the human face, giving vent to covert opposition through flüsterwitze (“whispered jokes”). Incredibly, even Jews joked about their plight, drawing on the absurdist humor that is quintessentially Jewish to mock the Nazis even as they lightened the intolerable burden of Jewish life in the shadow of the swastika. Rapaport offers a sample of Jewish humor in Hitler’s Germany: “A Jew is arrested during the war, having been denounced for killing a Nazi at 10 P.M. and even eating the brain of his victim. This is his defense: In the first place, a Nazi hasn’t got any brain. Secondly, a Jew doesn’t eat anything that comes from a pig. And thirdly, he could not have killed the Nazi at 10 P.M. because at that time everybody listens to the BBC broadcast.” (Which, parenthetically, was treasonous and therefore a serious offense.)
Even more mind-bendingly, Rapaport recounts, there were satirical cabarets in concentration camps such as Dachau, where for six weeks in 1943 a play poking fun at the Nazis was performed. Seated in the front row were “honored guests”: members of the SS. A survivor recalled the play’s effect on camp inmates: “Many of them, who sat behind rows of the SS each night and laughed with full heart, didn’t experience a day of freedom. But most among them took this demonstration of strength to endure their situation. They had the certainty, as they lay that night on their wooden bunks: We have done something that gives strength to our comrades. We have made the Nazis look ridiculous.” Rapaport quotes the sociologist and Auschwitz survivor Anna Pawelczynska, who maintains that “every moment of laughter and every joke was part of the arsenal of collective defense, and thus an element of resistance.”
Why did Hitler fear mocking laughter so much? His class anxieties about being uneducated and uncultured were part of it, to be sure, but Brooks puts his finger on the nub of the thing when he talks about the “holy seriousness” of the Fuhrer cult. Nothing invites the razzbery like self-important seriousness. The torchlit processions, the beer-bellied S.A. goons heroically lit, the schlocky posters of jut-jawed Hitler Youth looking all Tomorrow Belongs to Me, the subtle-as-a-flying-mallet messianic symbolism of Dear Leader’s plane throwing a cruciform shadow on the German heimland in “Triumph of the Will,” the solemn hogwash about blood and soil and the perfidy of the Eternal Jew and the Wagnerian awesome-sauce of a Master Race of Blond Beasts, all conjured up by a black-haired, pastyfaced guy with uncontrollable gas and an anger-management problem: only a nation that shaves the sides of its heads and eats nuts and bolts for breakfast could swallow this stuff with a straight face.
And Hitler knew it. A terminally humorless man, he was haunted by the imagined echoes of mocking laughter, often the derisive laughter of the upper class that had scalded him as a down-and-out hack artist, but worst of all Jewish laughter. Initially, as Fest records, he was “the favorite butt of European humor,” a wildly gesticulating wind-up toy with a Charlie Chaplin mustache. The conventional wisdom dismissed him as “a sort of a clown…taking off from the music hall,” as the Hitler biographer Hugh Trevor-Roper told Ron Rosenbaum. When Trevor-Roper read Mein Kampf in German, as few non-Germans were inclined to do in 1938, he realized that Hitler was deadly serious in his “powerful, horrible message.” But even when the world realized he wasn’t joking, years later, Hitler still worried that it was laughing behind his back. After he purged the party of the upstart old guard in the bloody Night of the Long Knives, in 1934, he seethed, “They thought I’d become their tool. And behind my back they made jokes about me…” Ominously, in the portentous 1939 speech in which he declares war on the Jews, the theme returns: “I have often been a prophet in my life and was generally laughed at. During my struggle for power, the Jews primarily received with laughter my prophecies that I would someday assume the leadership of the state and thereby of the entire nation and then, among many other things, achieve a solution of the Jewish problem. I suppose that meanwhile the laughter of Jewry in Germany that resounded then is probably already choking in their throats.”
Now, 71 years later, the Downfall parodies have made Hitler the butt of numberless jokes, and International Jewry—and the rest of us—are laughing ’til we choke. In one of the viral videos, the Fuhrer laments, “I was supposed to be the timeless evil dictator portrayed brilliantly by Ganz in the classic Downfall movie. Now look at me.”
Those who can’t take a joke are doomed to repeat it.