Childhood is a time of strong, focused passions. We find something to love—cars or Marvel, video games or sandlot baseball—and love it nearly to the point of obsession. And so it is with Jojo.
But, Jojo? He loves Adolph Hitler.
This wasn’t, perhaps, all that unusual in Nazi Germany. Lots of kids were gaga over the German chancellor at the time—in a furor for the Führer, you might say. The Beatles-like reception he received from youth offers ample proof of that. But Jojo takes it a step farther. He would like nothing more than to be Adolf’s BFF. So much so that the fascist dictator has become something like the boy’s inner alter ego: an imaginary friend with a penchant for narrow mustaches, military outfits and frenetic little pep talks.
A product of New Zealand Director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok), Jojo Rabbit is a strange little movie. Ostensibly a satire, it’s actually weirder and goofier than that moniker suggests. Few movies would dare try to make us love a Nazi wannabe, 10 years old or not—much less one who cavorts with an imaginary Adolph Hitler.
We find shades of Mel Brooks’ infamous (and imaginary) play Springtime for Hitler here, but taken to perhaps even more outlandish extremes. Hearing Jojo enthusiastically shout “Heil Hitler!” to everyone he meets one bright morning is both incredibly disturbing, blending the innocence of youth with one of the darkest regimes in all of the world’s painful history.
The movie reflects this strange tonal schizophrenia perfectly. We are horrified by the deaths and sacrifices we see on screen. Moviegoers might be shocked by some of the comedic feints of bigotry that brought on the Holocaust. But for all its excess and jarring paradoxes, Jojo Rabbit works.
The film was controversial when it hit theaters. Comedic takes, even dark comedies, on World War II are usually a stretch. Add to that the central theme of the suffering Jews experienced in the Holocaust and you can see why many were nervous. But, thanks to its deft handling, Jojo rabbit has been endorsed, even recommended, by organizations fighting anti-Semitism today.
Still it is strange to see a boy with an imaginary friend who is Adolph Hitler.
When Jojo frets about people making fun of him, for instance, Adolph reminds the boy that people made fun of him, too. He still recalls the mockery: “Oh, look at that psycho,” they’d say. He’s going to kill us all!”
Oh, and then there’s the rabid anti-Semitism, of course. But again, most of Germany was enveloped with that. Jojo’s convinced that Jews aren’t people at all, but demons—complete with horns and possibly scales.
CAST Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo; Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa; Scarlett Johansson as Rosie; Taika Waititi as Adolf; Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf; Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm; Alfie Allen as Finkel; Stephen Merchant as Deertz; Archie Yates as Yorki
DIRECTOR Taika Waititi
DISTRIBUTOR Fox Searchlight
But Jojo’s drive to become Hitler’s most trusted confidante takes a turn south when he suffers a mishap with a live grenade during Nazi youth camp. Now, at the tender age of 10, he’s saddled with a half-crippled leg and a network of scars on his face.
Rosie, Jojo’s resourceful mother, isn’t about to let her son sit around and feel sorry for himself. So she introduces the boy to the local Nazi party and has him doing odd jobs around town—delivering mail, gluing up posters, that sort of thing. And while Jojo would much rather be doing something more spectacular for the Nazi cause, it does keep him busy.
But not busy enough, perhaps.
One day, Jojo returns home and thinks that he’s alone in the house—until he hears a weird noise upstairs. He walks up the stairs to explore, into his dead sister’s room and … hey, what’s that weird seam along the wall?
He feels along the seam, pulls out his official Nazi Youth knife out and begins to work at it. He pulls part of the wall out … and finds a secret cupboard behind it. There’s a bed. Books. Drawings. And—a girl.
She’s older than Jojo—maybe 17. And while Jojo doesn’t know who she is, he’s got a pretty good inkling what she is: a Jew. Her mother’s been hiding her for some reason. Wouldn’t the local Nazis love to know about this!
But if Jojo tells, it’s not just this little Jewish girl who’d be in big trouble. His mom might be, too. And maybe even Jojo himself.
And maybe Jojo’s just a little curious, in spite of himself. I mean, here’s a real Jew—right there! What might he learn? Like where, exactly, are her horns?
Rosie tells Jojo that she loves her country: “It’s the war I hate.” She hates the Führer’s hatred, too—though she can’t tell her little Nazi son that. So Rosie secretly works against the Nazi regime, most notably by keeping a Jewish girl hidden in her house.
Meanwhile, Rosie does her best to care for her surprisingly sensitive son—loving him as best she can, despite his fascination with Nazism. She knows that the biggest threat to her and Elsa’s safety is Jojo, but she still loves the boy with all her heart and believes that, underneath the uniforms and Nazi salutes, her loving, gracious child still lives.
She’s right, of course. Jojo Rabbit takes the form of a battle for Jojo’s soul—the imaginary Adolph on one side, Elsa and Rosie on the other. And as this internal battle wages in the middle of this very real war, we find that the Germany ruled by the Nazis is not nearly as monotheistic as those on the outside might imagine. We shan’t spoil anything here, but sometimes help comes from some surprising quarters.
Judaism stands at the center of this story, obviously. Nazis manufacture a litany of myths, prejudices and stereotypes regarding the Jews that, at first, Jojo swallows completely without a thought. While some of those lies sadly echo the anti-Semitism we still live with today, others are completely outlandish.
Rosie on the other hand, is implied to be Christian. We hear references to the faith and see visual signs of the religion around town, from crosses hanging on walls to the statues of saints standing starkly in a war-torn street.
Rosie, at one point, tries to encourage Jojo to dance. When Jojo says that dancing is pointless, Rosie suggests otherwise. “Life is a gift we must celebrate,” she says. “We must dance to show God we are grateful to be alive.”
More than that, there’s a beauty that shines through this dramedy’s inherent darkness and dysfunction. Jojo Rabbit tells a story about the power of life and love and heroism of a different kind—one that embraces kindness and goodness above the things that Nazi Germany valued. Or, let’s face it, what our world often values, too.
When Rosie insists that love is the most powerful force of all, Jojo doesn’t believe it. The strongest thing is metal, he tells his mother, followed by explosions, followed by muscle.
But his mother, turns out, was right. Jojo Rabbit tells us so. Shows us so. And in the end, it reminds us that even in the world’s worst moments, and in our worst, too, we should remember to dance. Because we are grateful.
–By Paul Asay