Inspired by the German film Downfall (2004), the parodies poke fun at Adolf Hitler while providing satirists with a creative outlet.
The scene takes place some 48 minutes into Downfall, director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 German film depicting the final days of Adolf Hitler. Deep in Hitler’s bunker beneath the Nazi Chancellery, General Hans Krebs (played by actor Rolf Kanies) runs his finger across a map of Berlin and explains the situation, which is dire. Hitler (Bruno Ganz) waves a hand dismissively, saying that all will yet be well. Then General Alfred Jodl (Christian Redl) spills the bad news: the Dallas Cowboys have blown their shot at the playoffs. Obama has won reelection over Romney. Hans turns out to be the real villain of Frozen. England has defeated Germany in the World Cup. Hitler has tested positive for Covid-19.
The list of disasters is seemingly endless. That’s because since 2006, hundreds of amateur satirists have taken this pivotal scene from Downfall—in which Hitler throws a tantrum after learning that the counterattack on which he has pinned all his hopes will not occur—and gleefully changed the English subtitles to produce parodies that often leave viewers convulsed with laughter.
To get the flavor of these videos, you must watch them for yourself—a YouTube search for “Hitler Rant” will bring up dozens. Their humor often hinges on inside jokes: Hitler is an anguished Dallas Cowboys fan, for example, but if you know nothing of the team’s record or roster you won’t find his anguish funny. And always, Hitler’s enraged response to the bad news is festooned with unprintable obscenities. Many of these parodies have received over half a million views on YouTube.
Since nearly anyone with a modicum of technical know-how can make their own “Hitler Rant” scene, there’s also considerable room for mishap. A University of Massachusetts professor was reprimanded after showing a student-made video in which Hitler fails his accounting course. A New York bank created a mandatory training film featuring a “Hitler Rant”—and found itself paying a $40 million settlement to an Orthodox Jew forced to watch along with his fellow employees.
In a reversal of this scenario, an Australian oil refinery worker, fired after lampooning his bosses with a customized Führer tirade, successfully won back his job after appealing to an arbitration commission, which ruled that the “Hitler Rant” parody had become so widespread online that no one could seriously believe the refinery worker was comparing his employers to Nazis.
But the real question is whether these videos are appropriate in any context, period. Constantin Film, the production company behind Downfall, briefly attempted to compel YouTube to remove the “Hitler Rants.” However, this effort ran afoul thanks to laws stipulating that parodies are “fair use,” not copyright infringement; the sheer ubiquity of these videos on YouTube (no sooner did one come down than a dozen more went up); and the fact that Downfall’s own director, Hirschbiegel, found most of them hysterically funny.
More serious is the issue of whether joking about Hitler tacitly humanizes him and detracts from the fact that the dictator was a monster who set in motion a war that killed over 70 million human beings—including six million Jews slaughtered in Nazi death camps. The comedic genius Charlie Chaplin, who famously skewered Hitler in his 1940 film The Great Dictator, later regretted doing so: “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps,” he wrote, “I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”
That’s a valid response. But it must be pointed out that the humor of the “Hitler Rant” parodies depends upon knowing that Hitler was a monster. They wouldn’t be funny otherwise. They ridicule the carpet-chewing tirades that were a hallmark of his insanity.
In any case, the videos are likely here to stay: Chris Hassel, the head of a British ad agency that specializes in viral advertising—advertising that relies on widespread circulation by consumers themselves—explained to the Guardian that the Downfall parody was “almost the perfect viral because it’s easy to create, and you’ve got a clip that can be easily adapted to anything…. It’s always the same joke, but every niche interest takes it and makes it work for them. If it makes them laugh, it’s probably going to work for millions of others.”
And in some respects, the videos are an unintended homage to the widespread Allied burlesques during World War II that painted Hitler as a clown. “Hitler Rants” have nothing on Spike Jones’s “Der Fuehrer’s Face” (1943), a popular anti-Hitler ditty loaded with Bronx cheers, or on Warner Brothers’ 1942 retelling of “The Three Little Pigs,” with the wolf wearing a toothbrush mustache. Lest anyone miss the point, the latter spoof issues a disclaimer: “Any similarity between this Wolf and that @#$!! jerk Hitler is purely intentional.”
One thing is certain: “Hitler Rant” parodies aren’t going away anytime soon. And until they do, the film incarnation of that @#$!! Nazi dictator will have an endless string of things to rave about. ✯
This article was published in the December 2020 issue of World War II.