In a dramatic scene from the 2004 European film “Downfall,” Adolf Hitler flies into a tirade as the defeat of Nazi Germany looms.
But on the Web, that clip is best known as the foundation for thousands of funny, user-generated parody videos that continue to sprout despite an effort by the studio that produced the movie to block them over copyright issues.Humorous captions superimposed over the scene change Hitler’s words, voiced in German by actor Bruno Ganz, into satirical commentaries on everything from annoying World Cup vuvuzela horns to the collapse of real estate values.
“I wanted to make the community laugh about the situation,” said Hadley, a painting company estimator from Ogden, Utah.
It’s become one of the Internet’s most enduring pop culture memes – if there’s a new controversy or major topic of conversation, there will almost certainly be a satirical Hitler meltdown video.
Some draw hundreds of thousands of views. The real estate and vuvuzela rants have each been viewed more than 2 million times.
To be sure, the Web is filled with parodies. But “Downfall” has become a favorite target because the intensity of Hitler’s meltdown only adds to the comedy.
Parody-maker Robert Tolhurst, 48, of London said the videos are an “emperor’s new clothes” antidote for “these politically correct times (when) we are just supposed to swallow popular culture whole.”
“It’s a thin line between what is a parody and what is just pure copyright infringement,” said Martin Moszkowicz, who heads the film and television division of Constantin Film AG, the Munich company that produced “Downfall.”
No money for studio
From the studio’s point of view, the main problem is that the entire film can be viewed online in 10-minute increments without compensation for the studio, producers or actors. Moszkowicz said contrary to popular opinion, the parodies have not boosted lagging sales of the film’s DVD in the United States, where a majority of them originate.
While the film’s director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, has publicly said the parodies make him laugh, Moszkowicz said they still alter the artistic intent of the film and the work of actors like Ganz.
“Obviously, some parts are in good taste and other parts of it are in bad taste,” Moszkowicz said. “As a company, we don’t want to be in a position to say what is good humor, what is bad humor. We want to protect our copyrighted material, and we want to protect our actors.”
The crackdown has substantially reduced the number of illegal “Downfall” downloads, although he said the studio has no plans to take individual parody-makers to court. Still, he conceded it will be hard to stop all of the parodies.
One frequent parody-maker has more than 10,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel. An online forum includes easy step-by-step instructions on how to make one’s own “Downfall” parody using a computer, Windows Movie Maker software, and a YouTube account.
“Whenever there’s an issue that springs up, I immediately walk to my computer and start typing in the subtitles,” Michael Olimpo, 20, said in a phone interview from his home near Manila. “I find them funny, and I can express my discontent over some issue here in my country.”
“Downfall” parody makers contacted for this story maintain their productions do not infringe copyright laws because they are allowed under “fair use doctrines” as social commentaries.
A spokeswoman for San Bruno’s YouTube said the Google subsidiary doesn’t comment on individual copyright cases but said members have the right to dispute infringement claims and have their videos reposted. If the copyright owner files a more formal claim under the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it triggers another dispute process.
Corynne McSherry, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco digital rights organization, said most of the parodies meet the four basic tests for determining fair use, at least under U.S. copyright laws.
McSherry said the videos aren’t done to make money, they transform the original work, they use only short portions of the film, and they don’t harm the market for the movie.
Gareth Thomas, a 20-year-old United Kingdom resident who has posted 39 “Downfall” clips, said he received notice that his first parody was blocked, but he replied to the notice with the fair-use argument “and it was unblocked a few days later.”
In an e-mail, Thomas said Constantin Film’s view that some are in bad taste “drives me to make more.”
“We don’t need some guy in a suit telling us what to like, what to watch and what not to watch, what we can and can’t say,” he said. “At the end of the day, I believe it’s become more about freedom of speech than anything else.”
Copyright 2010 Hearst Communications Inc.