Politics of History, Representation, Responsibility in JoJo Rabbit, Prelude to War, and Downfall

Paper by Taylor Garman.

When viewing a political film, it’s important to understand the responsibility that the filmmakers have regarding the historical accuracy of the film. This is especially true with the historical accuracy and the interpretations of the portrayal of historical characters in films. Three political films about World War II that each portrays Adolf Hitler in very different ways are Prelude to War​ (1942), ​Downfall​ (2004), and ​Jojo Rabbit​ (2019). The respective portrayals of Adolf Hitler in each of these films are meant to make the audiences consider all sides to Adolf Hitler, reminding them of his human nature, rather than the obvious monstrous person he is remembered as. This is not to say that Adolf Hitler was not a bad person, as he was sadistic and inhumane; however, he was a human just as the rest of us are. This is especially shown through the dialogue and the mannerisms of the different portrayals of Hitler in each of the films and especially understood when the historical accuracy and the biases of the films are considered.
First, it’s important to understand the impact that political films have on history and our understanding of the past. Political films have a significant impact on understanding history and the past. A political film has the ability to change the way in which an audience member understands, views, and feels about the particular historical event that is being portrayed in the film. Depending on the historical accuracy and the prior knowledge the audience member has of the historical event, the audience member will have a different perspective regarding the event after viewing the movie.

Another widely debated topic is whether or not filmmakers have a responsibility to the history they depict in their films. I personally believe that filmmakers do have a responsibility to the history they depict. They have a responsibility to represent the history they are depicting in an accurate manner so that the audience will not have a total misunderstanding of the historical event. This does not mean that historical fiction is an unacceptable genre of film; in fact, when done properly, a historical fiction film can be an extremely impactful and memorable film for an audience member. The viewers can find themselves intrigued by the storyline and the characters, while the story is following along with the history in an accurate, almost educational, manner.

Next, it must be questioned how films form and construct a collective memory for a group of people or a nation. A film is able to form and construct a collective memory for a group of people or a nation through its representation of the said group of people or nation. If a film represents a group of people or a nation in a negative light, showing them as “evil”, “villainous”, or even “terrorists”, it could make an audience member associate this portrayal of this group of people or nation as one, or all, of these qualities in real life. This type of association leads to prejudice (especially racial prejudice), hate crimes, and the perseverance of injustice. The same goes for the opposite, as a group of people or nation that is portrayed as “good”, “heroic”, or “angelic” in a film can be associated with these qualities in real life. Some issues that stem from this are bias, prejudice, and privilege, even in the face of this particular group of people or nation doing wrong. In this case, the group of people or nation that is being portrayed as “good,” “heroic,” or “angelic” benefits from this construction, as this inherent bias that stems from their portrayal in a particular film can help them avoid punishment in the face of wrongdoing.

The first film being analyzed is ​Jojo Rabbit,​ a 2019 film directed by Taika Waititi and produced by Taika Waititi, Carthew Neal, and Chelsea Winstanley (Internet Movie Database). This film, set during World War II, tells the story of Jojo, a young Nazi trainee with a vivid imagination, living with his anti-Nazi mother in Germany. During the film, Jojo imagines Hitler to be his friend, accompanying him throughout his days and engaging in conversation with him throughout the film. However, when Jojo discovers his mother is spreading anti-Nazi propaganda and hiding a young Jewish girl in their home. He is faced with the decision of choosing between the safety of his mother and his new Jewish friend versus the Nazi rules against Jews he is being taught at his camp. This film portrays Hitler in a comedic role rather than a particularly ‘evil’ role, as Jojo imagines him to be funny and personable, as a friend of Jojo’s at the time would have been.

The second film being analyzed is ​Prelude to War​, a 1942 American-government produced film originally intended for American troops to view. This film is the first of seven films in this series of anti-Nazi/Allies Powers (thus, anti-Hitler) films, which were ultimately given permission to be released to the American public for viewing. Given that they were propaganda films that were intended to support the American troops fighting against the Allied Powers in World War II, they very much portray Hitler in a serious, dangerous, and sadistic manner, exposing his fascist regime and ulterior motives, brainwashing the Germans to follow his rule and listen to his every word. To quote Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, “film had been synonymous with spectacle or entertainment [until recently],” making this an interesting film for Americans to be viewing, given the gravity of the film and its contents.

The third film being analyzed is ​Downfall,​ a 2004 film depicting the final days of Adolf Hitler’s rule over Germany, and his ultimate downfall from his power. This film, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and produced by Bernd Eichinger, really humanizes Adolf Hitler, showing his raw emotions through his final days leading up to his downfall. This often reminds audiences that while Hitler was truly an awful, sadistic, and inhumane man, he did still experience the natural human emotions of panic, anger, anxiety, and fear.

Throughout these three films, each of them exposes the mannerisms and portrayal of Adolf Hitler through the dialogue used. In ​Jojo Rabbit​, Taika Waititi portrays Adolf Hitler in a comedic role, as a friend to the main character Jojo. He gives him advice and appears in scenes often providing some comedic relief to scenes. During the dinner scene between Jojo and his mother, when Jojo decides to ear his mother’s food defiantly, the character of Hitler sits in the middle of the two at the table, looking awkwardly at them, eyeballing them back and forth, with an awkward look no his face, making the character of Hitler somewhat funny, rather than sadistic. When the mood becomes increasingly awkward, he leans forward to Jojo, mentions that he is going to go somewhere, stands up, and leaves the table silently, almost sneaking his way out of this awkward situation. In another scene, where Jojo is in the woods, Hitler calls Jojo “little friend” and mocks his critics for calling him a “lunatic” and saying that he was going to get them all killed, bringing comedy to a tense situation. Hitler is also shown running around, screaming in fear, and even dancing in a rather silly manner with Jojo throughout this film, showing him in a rather comedic role, just as clueless and silly as a ten-year-old would imagine him to be. Ultimately, Hitler’s character is expelled from the film, as Jojo decides he doesn’t want his advice anymore, deciding he wants to protect his new Jewish friend, ultimately revealing the negative, evil characteristics of Hitler according to a ten-year-old’s perspective. Through the comedic mannerisms and dialogue of Hitler in ​Jojo Rabbit​, the audience is left grappling between the comedic version of Hitler imagined up by ten-year-old Jojo in the film versus the real-life, sadistic and inhumane Hitler that lives on throughout the history of World War II.

In ​Prelude to War,​ the narrator of the film uses extremely harsh words to describe Adolf Hitler and his fascist regime of Nazis. The intent behind this harsh language is to stir the emotions of the audience member, to turn them against Hitler, and rationalize America’s involvement in World War II at this point in history. The narrator refers to Adolf Hitler as “ruthless”, as he leads the nation of Germany to commit mass genocide against anyone he does not believe is apart of his Aryan race (the “perfect” race, in his opinion). This film also says the Germans “gave up their individual rights as human beings to become a part of a mass, a herd, under Hitler’s rule” (Prelude to War). This is meant to make audience members feel disdain and anger toward Hitler for brainwashing all f these citizens. It may even draw up enough emotion from its American audience to make them think that it is their American duty to fight in World War II, not only to liberate those being mass murdered and incarcerated for their heritage, religion, race, sexuality, or ethnicity but to free the Germans from their brainwashed thinking caused by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Through this usage of logos (logic) and pathos (emotion), Prelude to War is able to draw a response from its audience directly from its portrayal of Hitler as such an awful character.

In ​Downfall,​ the dialogue and mannerisms of Adolf Hitler really reveal the natural human emotions that he undergoes, despite his sadistic and inhumane nature. When Hitler is told about the failed attack at Steiner by his generals, his shaky hands reveal his fear, anxiety, and anger. His moments of silence reveal how he is processing this news and his upcoming downfall from power. He shakily removes his glasses, still processing, planning his response to this terrible news for his regime. He excuses all lower-ranking members in the room, keeping four higher-ranking members, whom he berates and yells at, throwing his pens, standing up, but hunched over from his yelling. Hitler looks emotionally distressed, the women outside are crying, and even his military is turning their backs on him, as the situation is dire and seemingly hopeless to the Nazi regime. This image of a stressed Hitler, worried about his power, quickly losing hope and support, almost appeals to the emotional side of the audience, maybe making them feel bad for Hitler, for just a moment, before remembering thew acts of genocide and terror he has inflicted upon millions. Nonetheless, this appeal to the pathos of the audience through the mannerisms and the dialogue of Hitler is significant, as it makes the audience feel different emotions for the character of Hitler in this film versus the actual Hitler remembered through history.

Throughout these three films, the mannerisms and dialogue of Hitler really challenge the audience to consider the character of Adolf Hitler. It forces them to compare who the film is depicting Hitler as versus what history teaches and shows who Hitler was. Each film does this in a very different and specific way. ​Jojo Rabbit​ makes the audience consider Hitler in a more childlike, almost innocent sense. This is because his persona is created in the mind of a ten-year-old boy who knows nothing other than what he creates Hitler to be. While this film is a proclaimed “anti-hate” film, as director Taika Waititi says, it’s also meant to satirize the Nazis and Hitler, making the audience laugh at the ridiculousness of the entire regime as a whole. Interestingly enough, Waititi says in an interview that he did not study Adolf Hitler at all prior to portraying him in this film, saying,

“​I had no interest at all in portraying him authentically. I didn’t want him to have the satisfaction of knowing that someone studied him, studied every nuance of his physicality… (including) how he speaks,” he says. “I don’t think he deserves someone making that
much effort” (Waititi, USA Today).

This portrayal of Hitler is starkly contrasted by the portrayal of Hitler in ​Downfall​, which shows the fear, anger, and anxiety of Hitler during his final days, rather than the comedic performance of Hitler by Waititi. In fact, while Waititi gave no study for his portrayal of Hitler, Ganz, who portrays Hitler in ​Downfall​, “created his character realistically, working with empirical data” (Bathrick and Magshamrain). Where ​Jojo Rabbit​ aimed to strike hearts whilst maintaining a comedic take on the regime, ​Downfall​ remained dramatic and intense throughout the film, showing Hitler in his darkest and most anxiety-ridden times. Both of these films show the human characteristics of Hitler – one being the natural human attributes of comedy and ability to be silly (even if it is a falsified portrayal) while the other shows fear, stress, betrayal, and anger, all of which are natural human emotions. These emotions, which almost create feelings of sympathy, assist in bringing up the issue of historical accuracy. Is it important for these films to have remained historically accurate? Did each of these films maintain a level of historical accuracy? When being compared t the anti-Nazi, American propaganda film, ​Prelude to War,​ one would argue, no, they most certainly did not maintain any historical accuracy. However, the bias of the film must be considered – possibly, since ​Downfall​ is a German film, was it filmed in this style, written with the specific dialogue and mannerisms intended to be carried out in order to garner some sort of sympathy for the German people? It likely is no, that no one in their right mind would attempt to garner support for mass genocide and the terrors of the Holocaust; however, this type of bias must always be considered. The same goes for ​Prelude to War,​ which obviously is an extremely biased film. This American film was created to berate the Nazis, garnering American support for joining the war to defeat this fascist regime, as well as the entirety of the Allied Powers. While this film certainly seems t be the most historically accurate, it also is the film with the most bias, being a literal propaganda tool used by the American government. After all, this film was shown to American troops, “​intended to explain ‘why we [America] fight,’” (New York Times). However, the intention for ​Downfall​ was seen as a bit different, as, “its purpose, according to the people involved in the making and contrary to other recent productions, was not necessarily to trace the genesis and developmental trajectories of a dictator and mass murderer, but to investigate Hitler’s powers of persuasion and manipulation, his charisma, and the people’s love, dedication, and fascination with their Führer until the bitter end by looking closely at that very end” (Haase 193).

These differing intentions and biases for each of these films help to reveal how the character of Hitler is meant to make audiences feel in each of these particular films.
All in all, through the usage of mannerisms and dialogue, the character of Hitler in each of these films is meant to make the audience feel different emotions and consider the different aspects to the persona of Adolf Hitler. While each film maintains his sadistic and inhumane nature, ​Downfall a​ nd ​Jojo Rabbit​ each remind audiences of his human nature, while ​Prelude to War​ brings audiences back to the realization that his actions almost discredit his human nature.

Works Cited
B.c. “PRELUDE TO WAR’ SHOWN TO PUBLIC; 53-Minute Army ‘Orientation’ Film Presented at Strand in Pre-Release Engagement EXPLAINS ‘WHY WE FIGHT’ 250 Prints Available to the Nation on May 27 — Preface to Series on View by Troops.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 May 1943, www.nytimes.com/1943/05/14/archives/prelude-to-war-shown-to-public-53minute-army- orientation-film.html.
Bathrick, David, and Rachel Leah Magshamrain. “Whose Hi/Story Is It? The U.S. Reception of ‘Downfall.’” Duke University Press, Duke University Press, 2007, www.jstor.org/stable/27669206.
Christine Haase (2007) Ready for his close-up? Representing Hitler in Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004), Studies in European Cinema, 3:3, 189-199
“Jojo Rabbit.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 24 Oct. 2019, www.imdb.com/title/tt2584384/.
Mandell, Andrea. “Why ‘Jojo Rabbit’s Taika Waititi Didn’t Study Hitler before Playing Him.”
USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 11 Nov. 2019, www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2019/10/21/taika-waititi-defends-jojo-ra bbit-explains-his-goofy-hitler/4035233002/.
Solanas, Fernando, and Octavio Getino. “Documentary Is Never Neutral: Towards a Third Cinema.”

About this entry