By Dr Kathryn Agnes-Huether

What do Hitler, Rebel Wilson, and The Beatles have in common? Certainly not a combination many would expect or even easily imagine. What connects them is Jojo Rabbit, a 2019 comedy-drama marketed as an “anti-hate satire” written and directed by Taika Waititi. Set in a German town during World War II, the film follows the story of a young German boy, Jojo Betzler, who is a zealous Hitler Youth with low self-esteem which manifests itself in the form of an imaginary friend, personified as his beloved Führer, Adolf Hitler. Jojo’s patriotism is challenged when he discovers his mother—Rosie, a member of the resistance—is harbouring a young Jewish girl, Elsa, in their attic. Once Jojo discovers Elsa and begins to interact with her, he begins to question Nazi ideology, his perspective and the world around him.

While my last essay, “Moral Diegesis in Schindler’s List (1993)”), focused solely on the use of music in the traditional sense with Schindler’s List, this article explores the coupling of visual and musical symbolism, focusing on the way that Jojo Rabbit uses popular music and visual and vocal icons of the Holocaust—specifically the “Heil Hitler”—as a way to convey engagement with Nazi symbolism as it would have been experienced by its followers.

Overview—Jojo Rabbit’s Reception

Jojo Rabbit is jam-packed with satire—laughter follows a noticeable overuse of the “Heil Hitler” salute, from young boys playing Nazi dress up, to a mocking—yet eerily accurate—use of Jewish stereotypes similar to those found within Julius Streicher’s Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom), to Hitler dealing out high-fives and eating a unicorn. The 2019 film’s success and acceptance would have been impossible 30 years ago, merely for its comedic component which many have deemed vulgar and offensive; nonetheless, it found success with six academy award nominations and one win—Best Adapted Screenplay—and was considered a box office hit with global acclaim.

Despite its success, some found fault with the film, with criticisms ranging from a seemingly harmless lack of plot coherence, to the far darker issue as enabling antisemitism. Film critic Roger Friedman accused the film of “borderline antisemitism” after seeing the film at the 2019 Toronto film festival:  

Let’s say Waititi really felt he was satirizing Hitler and Nazis, that he’s not antisemitic. But this is what he’s disseminating. He’s handing ideas and language out uncritically to a new generation of kids, who will laugh like the people in the Toronto audience and applaud new ways of expressing hate.

Friedman makes some valid and concerning objections, while others have voiced their own opinions, with some asserting that satirizing Nazis in the present is like “beating a dead horse” and others suggesting that the character of Jojo really shows no character depth or growth at all, that there “are no insights to be had—and no laughs.” However, none of them really examined the film’s score or considered that their initial scorn may actually be the correct and necessary response. In fact, the incorporation of popular music—in this case, The Beatles—and vocal redundance play crucial roles in this disruption.

Groundwork: Icons and Sonic Dissonance

Scarlett Johansson , Sam Rockwell and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019), directed by Taika Waititi. Credit: Piki Films / Album

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”:

Original English

German Translation

Chorus 1:

Oh, yeah, I’ll tell you somethin’

I think you’ll understand

When I say that somethin’

I want to hold your hand (x3)


Chorus 2:

Oh, please, say to me

You’ll let me be your man

And please, say to me

You’ll let me hold your hand

Chorus 1:

Oh, komm doch, komm zu mir

Du nimmst mir den Verstand

Oh, komm doch, komm zu mire

Komm, gib mir deine Hand (x3)


Chorus 2:

Oh, du bist so schön

Schön wie ein Diamant

Ich will mit dir gehen

Komm, gib mir dein Hand (x3

A Beatle fan goes crazy at the Beatles' performance in Blokker, Netherlands. Noord-Hollands Archief / Fotoburo de Boer

We forget our history, and that Hitler did not take power by force, it was given to him legally and by democratically elected officials. Director Waititi’s decision to incorporate the popular tune resonated with this suggested reference to the “Heils” historical index, commenting:

I was watching these documentaries on the Hitler Youth and all the rallies and stuff and just seeing the crowds, and when I was watching them I thought, ‘Oh my god, this looks just like Beatlemania.’ It just struck me that this one person or this group of people could capture the hearts of a country and create such fervor. It felt to me lie the sort of best way to explain to modern audiences what it was like for them, for their country.


Turino writes

“The Nazi case illustrates that the same powers that music has for creating positive community relationships can also be used to villainous ends.”

This is poignantly demonstrated in opening scene of Jojo Rabbit with the combination of Jojo’s youthful exuberance, his “Heil” chant, and The Beatles’ “komm gib mir deine Hand.” Most, if not all, audience members will respond to the Beatles tune with upbeat recognition that is then, quickly at odds as Jojo’s “Heils” ring out. Jojo Rabbit challenges us all to consider our daily passivity, an act intimately wrapped up with our own part in mass consumerism, and asks if we, too, would cheer for fascism if it was accompanied by the right tune.


Roger Friedman, “Jojo Rabbit Review: Hitler “Satire” Misfires with Distasteful, Borderline Anti-Semitic Jumble that Offends the Audience It Wants,” Shobiz411 published on September 9, 2019, accessed on January 5, 2023, www.showbiz411.com/2019/09/09/jojo-rabbit-review-hitler-satire-misfires-with-disasteful-borderline-anti-semitic-jumble-that-offends-the-audience-it-wants.

Richard Brody, “Springtime for Nazis: How the Satire of Jojo Rabbit Backfires,” New Yorker published on October 22, 2019, accessed on June 23, 2023; and Peter Bradshaw, “Jojo Rabbit Review—Taika Waititi’s Hitler Comedy is Intensely Unfunny,” The Guardian published on December 20, 2019, accessed on June 23, 2023, www.theguardian.com/film/2019/dec/20/jojo-rabbit-review-taika-waititi-hitler-comedy.

Thomas Turino, Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2008).

David Kertzer, Ritual, Politics ,and Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 98.

David Lind, “Nazi slogans and violence at a right-wing march in Charlottesville on Friday night,” Vox published on August 12, 2012, accessed on August 1, 2023 www.vox.com/2017/8/12/16138132/charlottesville-rally-brawl-nazi.

Kenneth Womack and Kit O’Toole, eds. Fandom and the Beatles : the Act You’ve Known for All These Years / Edited by Kenneth Womack and Kit O’Toole. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Perri Nemiroff, “How Taika Waititi Landed Beatles Music for ‘Jojo Rabbit,’” Collider published on January 21, 2020, accessed on December 10, 2022, https://collider.com/jojo-rabbit-beatles-music-explained-taika-waititi/.


Waititi developed his screenplay from the novel, Caging Skies, by Christine Leunen that was originally published in 2008. While Many details remained in the film adaptation, the aspect of satire and comedy is lacking withing Leunen’s original novel. See Christine Leunen, Caging Skies (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams Publishing, 2019).

The Poisonous Mushroom is a children’s book written by Julius Streicher—founder and publisher of the virulently antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer—that was first published in Germany in 1938. Aesthetically, the book referenced the children’s book styles of German fairy tales and coupled with brief, poetic texts with visuals. Each page portrayed a different antisemitic stereotype, including physical appearance, religious beliefs, and moral character. See “Page from the Antisemitic Children’s Book The Poisonous Mushroom,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed on June 23, 2023, perspectives.ushmm.org/item/page-from-the-antisemitic-childrens-book-the-poisonous-mushroom.

Like Friedman’s notion of “borderline” antisemitism, contemporary misuse of Nazi and Holocaust imagery can, and should, be understood as forms of antisemitic enabling, to borrow historian Deborah Lipstadt’s concept. Defined, “antisemitic enabling” are cultural actions that propel degrees of antisemitic hatred into the mainstream. The first are those that employ expressions that are not ideologically rooted but that “serve a utilitarian purpose to a political end.” The second are rooted in ideology, but one that has nothing to do with the Jews but “that nevertheless sweeps Jews into it.” See Deborah Lipstadt, Antisemitism Here and Now (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 2019), 44.

Jojo Rabbit (2019) directed by Taika Waititi starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell. Comedy based on Christine Leunens Caging Skies novel about the Hitler Youth.