In a pivotal scene in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, Gestapo officer Deertz (Stephen Merchant), gazes around at Jojo’s (Roman Griffin Davis) room, with its images of Hitler, SS posters, and Nazi images, and concludes that it’s the kind of boy’s room that he likes to see. The images are shocking to the viewer because they are indeed recognizable as the room of a child who has put up images of pop idols. The idol in this case, though, is Adolf Hitler. The use of fandom as a way of describing and understanding the lure of fascism is a major thematic element to Jojo Rabbit and has its basis in a complex relationship to the way that image, cinematic and otherwise, was (and is) used in fascist propaganda.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, understood the nature and use of iconography to lead people into perceptions without explicitly telling them what to think, saying “propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting of their own free will.” Like his boss, Goebbels saw cinema as a major propaganda tool, but despite current perceptions, his focus was far more on fictional narrative cinema than on “documentaries” like Triumph of the Will, with which we often associate Nazi propaganda. The creation and establishment of Nazi iconography and thematics within fictional narrative was one of Goebbels’s main projects, and if one sits down and watches the fiction films produced during the Nazi regime, one sees a far more insidious construction of nationalistic identity than that shown in Riefenstahl’s documentary work.
Riefenstahl, however, was instrumental in establishing Hitler as a pop icon, both within Germany and the rest of the world, creating a spectacle of Nazism that the fiction films then reinforced. Her use of iconography formulates a celebration of youth and health with the visual association of the Nazis in general, and Hitler in particular, at its center. In Triumph of the Will, Hitler is seen as a desirable pop icon, a leader who represents all that is good in the German character, juxtaposed against imagery of Hitler Youth and German soldiers exercising, playing sports, and having fun. The imagery explicitly depicts Nazism as an expression of German exceptionalism.
Jojo Rabbit takes this element and distills the explicitly collective into the personal and individual, taking both the images of Triumph of the Will and Olympia, the propaganda that formulates Jews as devilish monsters, and the implicit depictions of “Germans” and “Jews” in Nazi-produced films like Jew Suss. Jojo is, like most of his counterparts, steeped in Nazi iconography, as evidenced by his bedroom. He sees Hitler as an idol and a hero, an imaginary friend, like a movie star or a rock artist. This juxtaposition is made clear from the film’s opening credits, in which archival footage of Nazi rallies, Nazi youth, and Hitler himself plays against The Beatles’s German language version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The juxtaposition of the image of Hitler with pop idols – structuring him as an iconic figure like The Beatles– in addition to the joke of Hitler wanting the hands (salutes) of German youth establishes the metaphor that the rest of the film plays with: the Hitler Youth as Hitler’s obsessive fandom, stoked by Nazi propaganda.
Jojo Rabbit interacts with this world of idolatry via a ten-year-old’s perspective. The Nazis came to power in the early thirties, with Hitler consolidating his position as dictator by 1934. Jojo is ten years old, and has spent his entire life living under Nazi rule – he literally has no experience of existing under any other leader or party. His valorization of Hitler, therefore, is unsurprising—he’s a child with no experience of an alternate viewpoint, although presumably both of his parents have attempted to impress alternatives on him, as far as they were able within the strictures of their society.
The appearance of “Imaginary Hitler” (Taika Waititi) is an externalization of Jojo’s desires about Nazism and an extension of his need for a father figure and a friend who will support and encourage him. In his first appearance, Imaginary Hitler encourages Jojo to psych himself up at the prospect of going to a Hitler Youth camp for the weekend. The camp itself is presented, initially, as a sort of Boy Scout retreat, set against the backdrop of the adults knowing only to well that Germany is losing the war. Again, this establishes the insidiousness and insularity of Nazi ideology. The children are being indoctrinated – taught to be literal child warriors, as the latter part of the film makes plain – via behaviors that are also recognizable to the modern audience: camping, boating, bonfires, and games. There’s a further critique inherent in this representation, given that the scenes of indoctrination are all extraordinarily familiar ones, teaching obedience to a paramilitary organization. It’s hard not to see the implications in the strict regimenting of children under the concept of “fun” extend to our own understandings of organizations that require obedience and teamwork as preparation for military-like obedience.
Imaginary Hitler’s second appearance occurs after Jojo fails to kill the rabbit when he’s ordered to, the first time that the film reveals the violence of indoctrination. Until this point, Nazism is presented much as Triumph of the Will would have it: a celebration of youth and strength depicting healthy young people. Imaginary Hitler presides over this shift toward violence, reassuring his young friend that it’s OK to be the rabbit, to fear that violence and even to fail to commit it. This most fully establishes the association of the image of Hitler with Jojo’s self-expression – he imagines that his idol will accept him even though he’s not a “perfect Nazi,” that there is a place for nonviolence in the regime.
This, of course, is undercut the longer the film goes on, and the character of Imaginary Hitler alters as Jojo’s ideology shifts and his understanding of the difference between the cinematic/propaganda image and reality becomes starker. At one point, Imaginary Hitler encourages Jojo to burn his own house down, to reveal Elsa’s presence to the Gestapo, and even to outright kill her. From the reassurance that he need not kill the rabbit, Jojo comes to face the encouragement of violence and what killing someone would actually mean. He tells his friend Yorki early on that if he ever met a Jew, he would kill them. But this functions as a childish fantasy in order to please his idol—faced with the reality of violence, Jojo’s fantasy images break down and he struggles to reconcile the propaganda concepts he’s grown up with, with the reality of death.
The questioning of his fandom develops as Jojo learns that the things he’s been told and the images he’s seen are in contradiction to the reality. Hitler’s presence in his life begins to change – at one point, he sees his imaginary friend consuming a cooked unicorn while lecturing on the need to give up things for the glory of Germany. Because we know that Hitler is a projection of Jojo’s psyche, him conjuring an image of his idol as less than perfect and even hypocritical indicates the breakdown of propaganda. Imagery again comes into play as Jojo gets to know Elsa and begins to write a book about Jews. Discovering, of course, that the popular propaganda images of Jews as horned devils is erroneous, Jojo again begins to grapple with the other images that might also be erroneous. The consistent transformation of Imaginary Hitler from buffoonish pal to dangerous demagogue, in Jojo’s imagination, becomes Jojo reshaping his own fandom. He’s learning that images are not the same as reality, and the things that he has been told do not correspond to things that he sees.
Jojo Rabbit does many things with its imagery, its thematics, and its presentation of the child’s perspective within a totalitarian and indoctrinated society. But it also juxtaposes these concepts with things that are disturbingly recognizable to modern viewers: the images of Hitler as pop idol, coupled with a well-known song; the Hitler Youth camp with book burnings that look like Boy Scout bonfires; the SS posters that look like album covers. It distills all this into a single figure, a friendly, funny, lovable buffoon who attempts to drive a young boy to murder and death.
Perhaps what troubles some people about Jojo Rabbit is the extent to which it takes its own argument, forcing viewers into an understanding of propaganda and how it operates. It might even remind modern viewers of how cinema and fandom has the capacity to manipulate, to alter our perceptions, to influence our ways of thinking and how, in the hands of a vile regime, it can make monsters of children. But it also provides a way through this, a testament to the power of cinema to uplift, to create a propaganda for love by rejecting propaganda. Jojo is able to fully reject the propaganda he has consumed, to recognize that these concepts are not reality, and to act of his own free will. He does this by destroying his image of Hitler, finally seeing his imaginary friend for what he is and not what Jojo’s own imagination, fueled by propaganda, has constructed him to be. Jojo becomes, by the end of the film, exactly what Goebbels doesn’t want him to be: a person aware of how he’s been manipulated and capable of acting on his own free will.