The rise, rise and rise of the Downfall Hitler parody

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Five years ago Downfall's release saw the German film acclaimed for its portrayal of Hitler's last days. But since then it has become almost as famous for a wave of internet parodies of its climactic scene.

Hitler is angry.

Very angry indeed. Angry enough to order all but his most senior generals out of the room so he can vent his rage.

He is angry because Cristiano Ronaldo has been sold to Real Madrid. Or because the ending of Watchmen has been changed. Or that Hillary Clinton has lost the Democratic presidential nomination. Or that Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift at an awards show.

It's become one of the best known "internet memes" around, a comic construct that has spread inexorably on YouTube and other platforms like a cultural version of Japanese knotweed.

In the original movie, the climax for many viewers might be the moment in the bunker when Hitler is told of the failure of General Felix Steiner to gather enough troops for an attack to ward off the Soviet advance on Berlin.

In this three-minute, 50 second scene, Hitler, played by Bruno Ganz, plunges between frothing vitriol and terrifying suppressed emotion as he confronts his top generals. The rest of the staff, standing in the corridor outside, listen rapt to the exchange.

But the parody makers have taken this clip, put it through a programme like Movie Maker or iMovie, and added their own subtitles, synced as closely as possible to the audio.

In some parodies, Hitler is being the public figure that is lampooned - Hitler becomes Hillary Clinton losing the nomination, or BBC chief Mark Thompson having to face Jeremy Paxman. But in many of the parodies, Hitler is simply reacting to events, the relegation of Sheffield Utd or Usain Bolt breaking the 100m record.

It is not an obvious subject for humour. Yet for millions of internet users there is something hilarious about this scene being turned on its head.

There is no clear explanation why this category of parody should have proved such a hardy internet meme, says technology writer Bill Thompson.

"It was just lucky. There is no particular reason why Downfall should have taken off."

YouTube launch

Every day in bedrooms all over the world there are bedroom comedians dreaming of creating something that will spread like wildfire. Most of their work goes unregarded, but to Thompson, they are the inheritors of the punk ethos.

"Maybe Downfall was in the right place at the right time. It coincided with the launch of YouTube.

"Once it becomes successful it is unstoppable. It is by word of mouth, or word of tweet. The internet does what it was designed to do. It enables two-way communication."

As with any internet meme, the precise origins are unclear. But the credit for perhaps the most popular version, Hitler gets banned from Xbox Live, which has racked up more than 4.2 million users, was claimed by British student Chris Bowley.

Since then the range of topics covered has been too numerous to list.

And the film company behind Downfall, perhaps understandably, prefers to focus on the acclaim for the movie and the $100m it grossed at the box office.

"The impact of the movie has been tremendous, both on a commercial and on an artistic level," says Martin Moszkowicz, an executive at Constantin Film.

Ambivalent view

The parodies have caused some issues.

"We as a corporation have a bit of an ambivalent view of it. On the one hand we are proud the picture has such a huge fanbase and that people are using it for parody. On the other hand we are trying to protect the artists."

As such Constantin Film has caused many of the parodies to be removed from YouTube and elsewhere.

"It is a task that can never be completed. They are popping up whenever we are taking one down," Mr Moszkowicz admits.

But while many people who have seen the parodies before seeing the film may have a strange feeling of deja vu when they get to the climactic scene, it won't ruin things for them, says Daily Telegraph film critic David Gritten.

"Some of them [the parodies] are absolutely wonderful. [But] I can't imagine it would ruin anyone's enjoyment of it.

"Ganz's portrayal of Hitler is so entirely full-on, so entirely convincing. He sears himself on your eyeballs."

And the Downfall parody meme has gone so far, that there are numerous versions sending up the whole meme itself.

In What does Hitler think of the Downfall meme?, Hitler rants: "This joke stopped being funny in 2008. This was only half-way clever the first time around."

"It's really the nature of the internet that once something reaches a critical mass it starts perpetuating itself out of its own momentum," says creator Andy Nordvall, who uses the name Masters of Humility. "The sheer randomness and seeming arbitrary nature of what goes viral becomes part of the viral-ness itself."

And at the heart of the craze is the ease of joining the bandwagon.

"Just find the clip online, subtitle it, and voila, you're a filmmaker. It's intoxicating just how easy it is to make your own Downfall parody."

Of course, some of the parodies are inevitably controversial.

International appeal

A Hebrew-subtitle version bemoaning the lack of parking in Tel Aviv caused some consternation in Israel last year. But it shows the international appeal of the meme.

There have been parodies everywhere from Poland to Malaysia.

And some may draw positive conclusions from the idea of young people now feeling comfortable lampooning Hitler.

Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel told a magazine earlier this year that he had seen many of the parodies and could see the merits of the idea.

In many ways the parodies take things full circle. Allied propagandists at the beginning of World War II tried to paint Hitler as an undignified, cartoonish and flawed character, thinking this would better serve morale than the image of a remorseless, evil mastermind.

And the creation of a human but still evil Hitler is what Downfall was setting out to achieve.

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