Thursday, February 11, 2010
KNTV NBC 11's Vicky Nguyen interviewed me yesterday at a Los Gatos coffee shop about those near-ubiquitous "Hitler's Downfall" videos that have cropped up on YouTube since 2006. While new one about Jerry Brown's inevitable California governor-bid [link] was the hook for Nguyen's piece, I enjoyed the opportunity to consider the broader implications of this phenomenon.
Tolerating my academic tendency toward pseudo-profundity, Nguyen managed an interview where we explored why so many people enjoy Hitler's Downfall videos as guilty pleasures. Our chat covered a lot of ground ranging from Andy Warhol's iconography of Marilyn Monroe to Kenneth Burke's "God and Devil terms" to other historical villains who have become mutable, editable constructs.
In comments that didn't make the final piece, I analyzed one component of the humor found (for some folks) in Hitler's Downfall videos: humorous juxtaposition. In other words, producers create an absurd mash-up of a raging mass murderer set to die in a bunker against an ever-growing array of goofily insignificant, contemporary topics: Jay Leno retaking The Tonight Show, the fact that Apple's iPad lacks a camera, that sort of thing. From that perspective, I attempted to explain the role of irony in the videos' humor.
Ultimately, though, I took a more critical tack, arguing that the pleasure that flows from ripping Devil-term figures from their historical contexts, the power to flatten history into a collection of interchangeable texts, comes with a price. While I regret my generational focus (referring to a "point and click" age group - Blerg!), I feel comfortable with one conclusion that made its way into the story: "[Hitler's Downfall re-producers] might look at Hitler as Genghis Khan or Napoleon or some sort of figure we can transform into a plaything, but the people who forget this really happened are the folks most surprised it could happen again." [Note: This is from the written version; the video version used different quotes.]
And yes, I cited George Santayana.
KNTV NBC 11 Video: Hitler Video Goes Viral