Downfall Parody Injects Confusion, Offense Into Crist/Rubio Race

I crossed paths today with a news report from CBS Channel 4 in South Florida that was headlined, "Video Portrays Charlie Crist As Hitler." Immediately, I thought the worst: that I was about to read yet another story of conservative extremists -- recently given to painting Hitler 'staches all over the people and places and things they didn't like, in the eloquent dialogue of Beckian outrage -- had declared Charlie Cristallnacht!

Reporter Tim Kephart teed up the report thusly:

Given the state of politics in America, it's not surprising that the vile face of Hitler has been injected into the race for Florida's soon-to-be vacant U.S. Senate seat. Florida Governor Charlie Crist and former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio are vying for the seat and a new YouTube video is portraying the sitting governor as Adolf Hitler.

But while such contemporary invocations of Hitler are cheap and vile and constant enough to warrant a reminder of Godwin's Law, the mention of a "YouTube video" suggested to me that the piece was about to take a turn. And sure enough, it did:

The video uses video footage from the movie, Downfall, which was released in 2005. The movie was a docu-drama about the last ten days of Adolf Hitler's life. It showed his madness as the Allied powers closed in around Berlin like a vice in late April of 1945.


Ahh. Okay. Wait a minute. This reporter is missing some context. While the news has been filled all year with talk of Hitler comparisons of the worst sort, parody videos involving the movie Downfall are another beast entirely. As they say, KNOW YOUR MEME! And so, here's Virginia Heffernan, meme-knower of the New York Times, to explain:

On YouTube, we're in a bunker, and the enemies are always, always closing in. The ceilings are low. The air is stifling. A disheveled leader is delusional.

This is the premise of more than 100 videos on the Web -- the work of satirists who for years have been snatching video and audio from "Downfall," the 2004 German movie of Hitler's demise, and doctoring it to tell a range of stories about personal travails and world politics. By adding new English-language subtitles, they transform the movie's climactic scene, in which Hitler (played by Bruno Ganz) rails against his enemies and reluctantly faces his defeat, into the generic story of a rabid blowhard brought low.

In the original scene, Hitler is told that his reign of power is over; he then deafens himself to reality, eloquently savages everyone who cost him his dreams, vows revenge and finally resigns himself to private grief. The homemade spoofs plug into this transformation just about any hubristic entity that might come undone: the subtitles speak to the plight of governments, soccer teams, football teams, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Adam Sandler.

The meme of the parodies -- the cultural kernel of them, the part that's contagious and transmissible -- has proved surprisingly hardy, almost unnervingly so. It seems that late-life Hitler can be made to speak for almost anyone in the midst of a crisis.

And recently, Constantin Films, which produced Downfall attempted to get YouTube to take down the many extant parodies under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (which led Electronic Frontier Foundation's Brad Templeton to produce his own Downfall parody, parodying Constantin's effort).

Now, Heffernan readily admits that the videos, for some, "can be hard to take." And understandably so! They call to mind Adolf Hitler, for example! Heffernan's Times colleague Robert Mackey has reported on how these parodies tend to offend Holocaust survivors. The Los Angeles Times's Robert Lloyd, noting that the meme "continue a tradition of trivializing an evil man," rightly states that a parody is only as sharp as the mind behind it:

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.

But the many Downfall parodists have, in Heffernan's words, transformed the original into "a closeted Hitler comedy" over time. And all things being equal, the proper read of the parody isn't that the parodist is making a one-to-one comparison between the subject of the spoof and Hitler, but rather comparing the unraveling of someone's real grand plan, with the over-the-top melodrama of Ganz's portrayal of Hitler, as his plan unravels in the movie.

None of which excuses the fact that anytime Hitler is invoked, there will be people who take offense. And none of that precludes the possibility that this parodist actually thinks of Charlie Crist as a Hitler figure. But the reporter has made no attempt to divine whether or not that's true, and there's no extant information on the producer of the Crist/Downfall video that offers a clue, in any case. But, barring future revelations, I think the fairest take on the matter is that the intent here is not to say Crist=Hitler, but rather, to make a situational comparison between Crist and the scene from Downfall (and, by the way, if you watch the video carefully, it doesn't really read like some piece of agitprop from the Rubio campaign, which has, for its part, denounced the parody). Journalistically speaking, the story is an example of the way Internet memes exist in a world of their own and disseminate themselves along their own specific vectors, and this makes them difficult to discern by reporters who aren't immersed in the culture.

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