Taika Waititi’s 2019 anti-hate film, “Jojo Rabbit,” is packed full of political and social commentary told through cinematic satire. In the opening scene, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is preparing for his first day of Nazi training camp. While looking in the mirror, his brown uniform seen in the reflection, complete with the red arm band, Hitler, portrayed by Waititi himself, appears out of nowhere to help the titular character master the Nazi salute. Of course, Hitler can just appear in Jojo’s room because he is the young boy’s imaginary friend. Though completely ridiculous, this scene immediately establishes both that the 108-minute runtime is going to utilize scandalous banter, and that this outrageousness is skillfully used to make statements that can only be expressed through farce. At the film’s core is the very message that hate breeds more hate.
While most of “Jojo Rabbit” pokes fun at the belief system of the Third Reich, a very subtle moment of Hitler wearing a Plains Indian headdress stands out in the Nazi Germany setting. Why would Hitler wear such a sacred item? Is he going to Coachella? Is this part of the commentary? Though this particular scene only lasts a total of 30 seconds, its cameo references a long history of Germany’s romanticism of America, specifically a romantic view about Native tribes that still exists.
A good place to start is with the popular adventure novels of Karl May. Born in 1842, May’s reputation for writing about the idealized American West left a permanent mark on German culture. Some of these books included the hero character of Old Shatterhand, a supposed stand-in for May himself, who has two guns and rides a horse around the open Western land of the United States. By his side is Winnetou, Old Shatterhand’s Native ‘blood brother’ and chief of the Mescalero Apaches, who is meant to represent human goodness as well as a life that is simpler and close to nature.
While May gave the illusion that the stories of Old Shatterhand and Winnetou were based on his own travels to the United States, the author did not make the trip across the Atlantic Ocean until after his work was published and successful. In fact, when the author did make his eventual trip to the land he had written about for so long, Buffalo, New York was the furthest west he traveled. The revelation of his purposeful deception did not hurt the legacy that his tales of Old Shatterhand and Winnetou left behind. Since May’s death in 1912 there have been movies, television series, and continual publication of his stories. You can even buy the infamous Winnetou trilogy in English on Amazon for just $34!
Now, it comes as no surprise that the real Adolf Hitler was a big fan of the tales of Old Shatterhand and Winnetou. A false and racist romanticism of another country fits right in line with the fascist ideology that marked the dictator’s time in power. According to Hitler’s Table Talk, which contain his shorthand notes, Hitler stated, “The only romance which stirs the heart of the North American is that of the Redskin; but it is curious to note that the writer who has produced the most vivid Redskin romances is a German.”
In my research I found no mention of Hitler parading around in blatant cultural appropriation. However, a similar admiration for May and the tale of the noble Native American is still an obsession that has fueled German hobbyists to ‘play Indian.’ In a recent article from Deutsche Welle, journalist Elizabeth Schumacher stated that “with no significant Indigenous population to resist these stereotypes, even well-educated and open-minded Germans will defend … Native hobbyism as ‘honoring’ a group of people with whom they have usually never come in contact.” In the same article, Schumacher estimates that 40,000 German residents participate in this ‘hobby’ as if they are mastering the rules and customs of a race or alien from “Star Wars.”
Intentions of these hobbyist participants or even Karl May might not be rooted in malicious behavior but that does not excuse the harm that this misrepresentation causes to Native communities. We still exist, a fact that people all over the world fail to realize. Every tribe has their own history of genocide and purposeful extinction methods, which itself has become a monolithic romanticizing of the truth through the term Manifest Destiny. The first Americans’ practice of conquering land that was not theirs to spread across the continent was also mentioned in Hitler’s own inspirations, this time in his writing known as Mein Kampf. So, maybe looking at the past with rose-tinted glasses is not exactly the best idea when it comes to the safety of minority groups.
W. Raymond Wood wrote an article for the Journal of the Plains Anthropological Society entitled “The Role of the Romantic West in Shaping the Third Reich” and argued that Waititi chose to include a “primary force in the development of his [Hitler’s] thinking.” Wood goes on to say that May’s novels cannot be blamed for the pain and destruction Hitler caused because he “would have likely developed a psychotic personality without them.”
Waititi has not confirmed that his character’s brief appearance while wearing a Native headdress is alluding to any of this history. But, knowing the filmmaker’s own commitment to Indigenous politics, I would not be surprised if this little Easter egg is there specifically to spark conversations.