Instructor Reflection – Hitler Finds Out About the Downfall Parodies (1.2)

by Bill Wolff

The Hitler Downfall meme and the assignment itself are controversial. I spent days debating whether to create this assignment in the first place. Ultimately several things informed my decision. First, I have never been an instructor who shies away from controversial and emotional subjects in my classes (I used to teach “War & Ethics” and “Holocaust” as Comp II subjects). Second, I don’t believe in hiding college students from things that are on the Internet just because they are controversial. Indeed, I see it as my responsibility as an instructor to ask students to think through the socio-cultural and -political implications of what they see and read online—especially if it is controversial. Third, I wanted students to engage with a meme that had a cultural weight that would show how ordinary citizens across the globe are transforming depictions of culture, history, and so on, through the use of parody. Fourth, I wanted to create an assignment that would challenge students precision editing abilities and help them learn the complexities of using subtitles—something that is more difficult than it seems. The precise editing completed in this assignment would prepare them well for the next large-scale remix video assignment.

When I finally made the decision to create the assignment I included and repeatedly emphasized a statement that reads, “Please note: If you are uncomfortable in any way working on Unit 1 using the footage from Downfall, you may use footage I have prepared from the movie Persepolis. Please contact me to discuss.” (In two semesters only one student has requested to work on Persepolis.)Prior to any discussion of the assignment, however, we discussed remix, memes, and parody and the ethics of all three in great detail. We read articles on the Hitler Downfall meme and discussed Hitler as historical figure, social artifact, and caricature. To facilitate this discussion, I wrote HITLER in large block letters on the white board and asked students to say what first comes to mind.

Word Association/Idea Generation using White Board – Bill Wolf’s Course

We watched and discussed the original scene without and then with English subtitles. We talked about why the scene makes for such successful parodies. Discussion touched on the scene’s pacing, the characters’ gestures, the camera angles, and so on. We then watched other parodies of Hitler, such as Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler” and “Hitler Rap,” and considered what kind of social commentary they were making. Only then did we begin to watch some of the Downfall parodies in class, consider the relationship between them and Brooks’ parodies, and introduce the assignment.

Michael’s approach to the assignment by making the video about the meme itself is excellent (and anticipates many of the versions that appeared after Constantin Films removed almost all of the parodies from YouTube incorrectly citing copyright violations). But the parody isn’t just about the meme; it’s about YouTube and meme culture overall. The opening sequence locates us within a YouTube culture of flame-wars and advertizing. Steiner’s parody was uploaded only this morning but it already has 103 hits—an allusion to Michael Wesch’s description of the rapid rise of “The Machine is Us/ing Us” in “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube,” the first video we watched in the class. Then, as a commentary on how everyone is getting on the meme bandwagon, Hitler asks people to leave if they have created a parody and 90% of the people shuffle out. The timing is spot-on. The self-aware nature of the parody continues as Hitler references his own anger issues, Stalin as a threat (the movie-ruining bully), and his own insecurities—all historical facts represented in a new way. The intertextuality is phenomenal. Ultimately, it helps us see how elastic video can be as a medium, how powerful alphabetic text is as an anchor for meaning, and how malleable symbols really are.