Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Jojo Rabbit has been called many things – an anti-hate satire, as the poster and trailers proclaim; a descendant of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator; a misstep of catastrophic proportions comparable to Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried. (The latter is quite a trick, given that the vast majority of the world has never seen that film.) Making a film that comedically deals with Germany nearing the end of World War II, that addresses Nazism, fascism, anti-Semitism, and the toll of hatred, is always an uphill battle. But Jojo Rabbit proves to be perhaps one of the most essential political films of the past five years, cutting through a complexity of issues with humor and pathos. It’s film that demands common humanity without excusing or arguing for “understanding” fascists. The Nazis are the undoubted villains of the film, even as they are also its center.
Jojo Rabbit tells the story of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten-year-old boy in Germany nearing the end of World War II. Jojo spends his days with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), his friend Yorki (Archie Yates), and his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Jojo’s also a member of the Hitler Youth and an apparently passionate fascist, a fact challenged first by his mother and then by his discovery of Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie), a Jewish girl (and friend of his missing sister, Inge), whom Rosie has been concealing in their house. As Jojo grapplies with the humanity of the object of his hate, he begins to wonder if Hitler really is such a great guy.
Jojo Rabbit threads a fine needle between satire and reality. It demands sympathy with, superficially, the least sympathetic of people, but by telling the story largely through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy, it lays bare the difference between true fanaticism and fanaticism created by circumstance and culture. The “imaginary Adolf” character begins as a cartoonish friend – Jojo sees him as an exuberant, silly pal who encourages Jojo to go out there and be himself, even when he fails at being a “good Nazi” by not being able to kill a rabbit. As the film proceeds and Jojo comes face to face with the starker reality of Nazism, Adolf shifts from an encouraging cheerleader to downright terrifying. Hitler is an imaginary figure who represents Jojo’s need for acceptance and encouragement, a celebrity icon who provides comfort in much the same way that children can imagine they’re friends with Batman or The Beatles. The conflict that develops between Jojo and his imaginary friend acts as an externalization of the ideological conflict within Jojo as he comes to see the difference between the cult of Nazism and the reality of it.
This elucidation of mythology and children’s games is at the base of Jojo Rabbit, revealing the cult of personality that surrounded Hitler—and, by extension, all fanatical political and cultural movements—how it was formed, and how it conflicts with reality. His mother attempts to keep him human, reminding him of his father’s true personality, instilling in him an understanding of love and humanity, even as he parrots Nazi propaganda and claims that metal and muscles are stronger than love. Later, Elsa tells Jojo, “You’re not a Nazi. You’re a ten-year-old boy who wants to be part of a club.” But this does not excuse Jojo’s passive acceptance of the tenets of Nazism. Just because he is comparatively innocent and led astray by adults does not mean that he’s not culpable. It’s through his discovery of common humanity, and the reality of the situations of his family, friends, and country that he’s able to put aside the costumes and trappings of fanaticism and seek forgiveness.
It should be noted that the “Hitler” of Jojo Rabbit is not the real Hitler, but a made-up version that acts as the friend and father surrogate of a little boy, a projection of what he sees and hears and imagines the “hero of the nation” to be. The real Hitler appears only once, in archive footage during the opening sequence, as an icon gazed upon by adoring fans. Waititi imposes The Beatles singing “Komme Gib Mir Deine Hand,” the German-language version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (yes, that is actually The Beatles) over images of Hitler’s rallies and Nazi salutes. This identification of Hitler’s “fandom” is far deeper than it might appear – Jojo fully indulges in his love of Nazi iconography, putting up posters of Hitler on his wall and fantasizing about being best friends with his idol. The promotion of “Hitler as heartthrob” was encouraged in Germany, a fact which the film exploits as it explores the concept of fascism as fandom, and the way in which Nazism enticed boys and girls to participate in its cruelty by framing it in terms of desire and adulthood.
The film further develops the cult not just of Hitler himself, but of the complicated mythology of Germany that the Nazis relied on for promulgating propaganda and their worldview, including the cult of death in which young men and women were trained to die for distant figures. Joj Rabbit focuses on the fetishization of violence, death, and weaponry—Jojo receives a knife at the beginning of the film, told that it is his friend. He imagines the violence he would do to a Jew if he ever caught one, and seeks to prove his bravery by stupidly seizing an active grenade. Yorki is conscripted as a soldier, despite being a child, and the images of child soldiers carrying massive weapons and firing guns walks the lines of humor, surrealism, and terrifying reality.
None of this would be possible without the deft hand of Waititi himself, as writer, director, and in the role of Imaginary Hitler, whom he plays as a cartoonish buffoon and terrifying bully. The imagery of a Polynesian Jewish man playing Hitler is, in itself, a transgression, but Waititi and his actors go beyond broad satire. The children are all uniformly excellent, a requirement for a film told through their eyes. Roman Griffin Davis carries the movie on his slight shoulders, portraying the central character with humor, nuance, and intelligence. Scarlett Johansson is likewise fantastic as Jojo’s mother, a good woman navigating a bad world, attempting to protect her son and do the right thing, as far as she is able.
Jojo Rabbit is about minor resistance, about a war being fought not just on the front lines but ideologically, in homes and cities. Rosie’s act of maintaining her son’s humanity and showing him what love is, is more transgressive and daring than anything done in violence. The film has been criticized for treating Nazis as human beings rather than monsters, much in the same way that Chaplin urged the common humanity of all people in The Great Dictator. But recognizing Nazis as human beings does not equate to saying that they’re misunderstood; rather, it says that their very monstrosity is a human monstrosity, a crime of human beings against each other, that all were culpable for their nation’s crimes, and all had a choice. What is more, it argues that we all have a choice, like Jojo, to remain human. We can reject hate and embrace love, and let the rabbit go.