In his work Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation, ethnomusicologist and anthropologist Thomas Turino explores the role of music in shaping and reflecting social dynamics, arguing that music is a fundamental and integral aspect of human social existence. His central premise is that musical engagement reflects the two primary realms of human life: the ‘possible’ and the ‘actual’. In music, and in the arts more generally, the ‘possible’ is able to be depicted in the same way as the ‘actual’, as the semiotics of music and the arts are far more fluid than that of linguistics.
The concept of semiotics is also central to Turino’s approach which he grounds in the understanding of Charles Peirce. Semiotics, the theory of signs, breaks down how and why we understand visual and musical icons, language, and even smells in certain ways. Three aspects of the appearance of a sign help us to examine the sonic underpinning and interplay with the visual of Jojo Rabbit: 1) the sign; 2) the object or idea; 3) the effect and its transience over time and across cultures.
Hitler’s moustache, for example, can be seen as a sign in Jojo Rabbit. Often referred to as the “toothbrush” moustache,” the square patch of facial hair was once a relatively common and popular style that predated Adolf Hitler’s personal choices; however, its status and meaning as a cultural icon grew exponentially as a result of Hitler’s rise to power and has developed ever since. This is the first aspect of Peirce’s sign components, 1) the sign - the moustache, and 2) the object or idea - Adolf Hitler and Nazism. The third component, 3) the effect, depends upon its cultural application and has ranged from forging a direct historical understanding to Hitler, as a means of satire and parody (take for example Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940), as an anti-hate and hate/antisemitic symbology, and even as an internet “meme”.
Aside from his moustache, Hitler himself was a master of symbolism and understood the power of emblems over people, and that such imagery evoked a superficial belief in ideals that could do far more to create a unified people than a firm grounding in ideology itself. Thus the preponderance of Nazi symbolism, from the boldly etched swastika to the Hitler salute (henceforth called the "Heil") to popular songs, cast a real spell over the German people. A "real spell" because they were consumed both willingly and with resentment, albeit in different ways. Again, the prevalence of these symbols in Nazi Germany became part of the everyday, a mundane kind of expectation that was either accepted or resisted daily. If the latter, it was precisely through resistance that those who challenged the regime found themselves challenged tenfold in return.
Anthropologist David Kertzer described these effects as a form of “cognitive dissonance,” writing in regard to the “Heil”:
To Hitler’s followers, giving the salute was an expression of self-assertion, of power. Each time a loyal subject performed it; his sense of well-being shot up. For an opponent of the regime, it worked exactly opposite. Every time he had to greet somebody in public, he had an experience that shook and weakened his integration [i.e., there was cognitive dissonance]. More specifically, if the situation forced him to salute, he immediately felt a traitor to his deepest convictions. So, he had to pretend to himself that it [the “Heil”] did not count. Or to put it another way; he could not change his action—he had to give the Hitler salute. Since one’s integration rests on acting in accord with one’s beliefs, the only easy way to retain his integration was to change his beliefs.
It is the daily repetition that made it so powerful. If you resisted, each “Heil” eroded one’s sense of independent being a little more, losing identity and position and pushing them further and further into the unified symbolism of the Nazi movement.
With this understanding of signs and cognitive dissonance, it is possible to examine Jojo Rabbit’s own symbolism, and demonstrate how it sonically curates a new form of cognitive dissonance, one that pushes the viewer to think critically about their own consumption of Nazi ideology through film.
Film Example: “Heil at Me Man”
The familiar opening theme of Fox Searchlight Pictures takes on a new ending transitioning after the opening sequence with a cheery march theme sung in German by a children’s choir. As the opening sequence fades to black, it transitions to ordinary sounds of daily dressing: bootsteps, zip of a tie, clasping of a belt, and a final latching or a side bag, the audience is introduced to ten years old Jojo Betzler.
The young, sandy haired boy—now in full focus—is sporting his full German jungvolk uniform. He launches into a monologue of self-encouragement that begins with confidence but a waver in his voice reveals his nervousness, as he timidly claims: “Today, you become a man.” Attempting to build confidence with increased volume he swears, “to devote all his energy and all his strength to the saviour of our country: Adolf Hitler.”
Suddenly, Jojo is no longer alone as an adult-sized figure enters the screen and the monologue becomes dialogue. The new figure is none other than the Führer himself, who proceeds to build-up Jojo’s confidence in preparation for his first jungvolk camp. When Jojo’s voice remains timid, Hitler asks Jojo to “Heil at me, man.” A series of “heiling” hype follows as an imaginary Hitler builds Jojo’s energy and confidence with a stream of “Heil Hitles’s” at ever increasing volume. As Jojo’s chant reaches a frenzy it is joined with The Beatles’s “komm gib mir deine Hand” (“I want to hold your hand)” henceforth referred to as “komm gib”. The popular Beatles tune accompanies the boy as he takes to the streets in an energetic run, heiling at all who cross his path, on his way to the camp.
The incorporation of the popular song, “komm gib”’ or any popular song for that matter, was a bold and unorthodox choice for a film about Nazi ideology. What’s more, the film’s depiction of a dark and complicated topic of history depends on satire and is conveyed through character wit, bright and vibrant hues, and upbeat tunes—many of which are popular hits -, a component that may have contributed to the film being labelled as “borderline antisemitic.”
If we break down these two apparently contradictory cultural symbols—the “Heil” and “komm gib”—according to the three-parts of a sign, we find that firstly, the sign is the salute in both its visual and voiced forms, the physical movement of the arm and the accompanied “Heil Hitler.” Secondly, the idea is that of Nazism and following the Führer, Adolf Hitler, and thirdly, the effect is a conveyance of participation, acceptance, and unity of the German people. This was the original sign makeup, or index, within its historical origins. Of course, this changed drastically after the end of World War II, the dissolution of the Third Reich, and its representation in popular culture of the war and the Holocaust. When we consider the “Heil” today, the first two attributes, the sign and the object/idea, remain largely tied to their origins; however, the effect can change drastically depending upon the time and place. For instance, when neo-Nazis and white nationalists marched on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, VA, in 2017 chanting “Sieg heil” and giving the Nazi salute, the effect was a frightening dark cloud felt across the United States, warning that US far-right nationalism was here to stay. Few people laughed at the circumstances. Jump forward two years to Jojo Rabbit’s release, and within the first five minutes, audiences are laughing at the vigorous, yet innocent repetition of the “Heil,” as Jojo leads the audience through his juvenile antics, heiling all the way.
“Komm gib mir deine Hand,” the German version of The Beatles hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” was released on 24 January 1964, after its English single release on 29 November, 1963. The original version, written primarily by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, captured the early feeling of “Beatlemania” and is a musical hallmark of The Beatles’ early style. Its German release and subsequent success was a testament to the group’s international appeal, a large step in solidifying The Beatles as one of the greatest music groups of all time. In the 1960s, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the symbol of rock ‘n’ roll, today it is as familiar to the western ear as the latest hits from Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift. To think of it in terms of a sign’s three-parts, it is perhaps more abstract than the “Heil,” as the both the object and effect can vary immensely. But, taken as a whole, it is an vibrantly energized tune that sonically echoes the prime of 1960s Rock ‘n Roll and The Beatles in their early success. Regardless of its object and resulting effect, “Komm gib” stands, at least on the surface, in opposition to the “Heil;” nonetheless, its use within the opening scene of Jojo Rabbit presents a fascinating case of dialectical opposition, in which two contradictory signs are experienced simultaneously, resulting in a cohesive effect that is seemingly distinct from that of their original historical appearances. Nazism accompanied by The Beatles, a product of one of the Western Allies and in vocal opposition to fascism?
It is precisely this harmony within the dissonance that curates a far closer sign experience of the “Heil,” and the consumption of Nazi ideology. One of the most ominous questions posed in relation to the Nazi’s following is how “good” people turned on their neighbours. As stated previously, this was not always entirely their choice, and cultural symbolism and rituals coerced otherwise resisting individuals. Those who have seen scenes from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will will undoubtedly recall the scale and the scope of the film, the large crowds, the prominent symbolism, and cinematic artistry that was unparalleled for its time. What the coupling of the “Heil” and “Komm gib” offers to Jojo Rabbit’s viewers is the complete index of the Hitler salute’s original use, an effect that embodied a feeling of national unity, hope, and inspiration, and one that is literally underlined with the lyrics, “I want to hold your hand”:
Oh, yeah, I’ll tell you somethin’
I think you’ll understand
When I say that somethin’
I want to hold your hand (x3)
Oh, please, say to me
You’ll let me be your man
And please, say to me
You’ll let me hold your hand
Oh, komm doch, komm zu mir
Du nimmst mir den Verstand
Oh, komm doch, komm zu mire
Komm, gib mir deine Hand (x3)
Oh, du bist so schön
Schön wie ein Diamant
Ich will mit dir gehen
Komm, gib mir dein Hand (x3