How Hitler's Downfall Mocks Your Ideals

A MIT researcher tracks the rise and fall of the Hitler downfall video meme

By Joab Jackson
Tue, October 05, 2010

IDG News Service — A short clip from a 2004 movie about Adolf Hitler has ended up speaking for a generation of discontented Internet surfers, as well as pushed the boundaries of copyright law, noted a Massachusetts Institute of Technology social networking researcher who discussed the reasons behind the clip's wide appeal at the Open Video Conference in New York last Friday.

The snippet he discussed came from the 2004 German movie "Downfall," about Adolf Hitler's last days. Swiss actor Bruno Ganz played Hitler.

"Why do a large number of people like the Downfall meme?" asked Alex Leavitt, a research specialist at the MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium.

You've probably already seen this repurposed movie clip, though your reasons for seeing it may differ greatly. The clip itself portrays an angry Hitler in a bunker railing against his imminent downfall.

An untold number of people have recaptioned the clip as a form of protest, to express disappointment in anything from Apple's iPad's lack of multitasking, to the death of Michael Jackson, to lagging Burning Man attendance among one's peer group.

Leavitt estimated that the first use of this clip appears to have been posted in August 2006, in which it was used to communicate criticism about the Microsoft Flight Simulator software. The subtitles were in Spanish.

It has been difficult to estimate how many times this video has since been repurposed. Leavitt said he had no idea how many actual variants of this video have been made. "The fact that we can't measure how many there are across multiple video sites, communities and personal servers tells us how popular it has really become," he said.

In the clip, "Hitler's passionate anger [works] as a means of expression" for a wide variety of causes, he noted. Ganz's Hitler, surrounded by his minions, first appears to be gloomily studying a proposal of some sort. He asks a few apparently troubling questions, orders some people to leave the room, and then launches on a tirade that can be heard by trembling devotees out in the hallway. At least to those unfamiliar with the movie, it represents the moment a dictator crazed for world domination realizes his plans will come to naught.

As to its power, Leavitt mentioned New York Times (NYT)' blogger Virginia Heffernan's 2008 conclusion that "Something in the spectacle of an autocrat falling to pieces evidently has widespread appeal. "

Leavitt also mentioned that the clip owes some of its utility to Ganz's acting skill. "Subtitles don't diminish his performance," he said. "The video is easily relatable because Ganz portrays raw emotion," of surprise, anger and despair, he said.

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