Spoilers within for Jojo Rabbit, the latest from Taika Waititi. You’re going to want to see this one, everyone.
When I heard that the dude who made What We Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok was going to do a “funny” movie about Hitler, I was unsure. Sure, the guy who gave us not only Korg but the memorable Tom Kalmaku in the Green Lantern movie is a remarkably talented filmmaker who can bring the heart to just about anything. One only has to look at What We do in the Shadows to see what he can do with just a group of catty vampires. But this is Adolf Hitler, someone we probably shouldn’t be joking about as actual Nazis are making their presence known once again.
It turns out, we did need Taika Waititi making fun of this particular man. Let that be a lesson to past me: never doubt him.
Jojo Rabbit is set in Germany in the waning days of World War 2 and focuses on Jojo, who lives at home with his mother Rosie, and wants nothing more than to impress Adolf by joining and succeeding in the Hitler Youth. It’s easy to see why, at first glance, why this movie would be a tough sell. Particularly as this is based on a book, Caging Skies, one that does not have the biggest selling point of this movie, that being that Jojo is looked after by his imaginary friend Adolf, who helps him through is biggest crisis of confidence. Including early in the movie where Jojo is unable to kill a rabbit, thus earning him his nickname and the title of the film.
There’s a lot I could write about the history of making fun of Adolf Hitler. There’s a rich history of it, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Donald Duck to the Producers. But here’s where Waititi runs with this idea even more: he’s not playing Adolf Hitler, nor is he playing a parody of Hitler. He’s playing a young boy’s imagination of who Hitler was in Germany at the height of World War 2, and that’s what’s so important about this particular character, especially if your main plot centers around a young boy who’s being indoctrinated to something pretty horrible.
Much of the plot revolves around Jojo’s crisis of faith. He believes so much in what the Nazi’s are doing, and the propaganda around what they’re selling that he’s willing to do anything to prove himself. The movie starts with a training accident in which he’s injured while trying to prove himself. The action itself wouldn’t be out of place for any kid hanging out in camp, but this particular one involves a grenade, and a demonstration of what not to do. These are important moments: meeting Jojo’s vision of Hitler and this training accident show us just how far he has fallen down the Nazi propaganda machine when the movie has started.
Things turn when he finds Elsa, a young Jewish woman living in the walls of his house. His mother is hiding Elsa, and his entire view of who he’s with starts to change.
Ok, not immediately. It takes the entire movie for him to eventually change his mind. But I guess you might have already figured that part out.
I’ve read some hot takes on this movie that had an issue with the premise “funny Hitler and the boy who dreams of him.” The problem many people have with this movie is similar to what they had with the Joker in that we like our monsters to be that: monsters. We want a guy in a hockey mask stalking people in the woods with a vague explanation that they’re tied to a camp curse or something. We don’t want to imagine that our monsters were once 10 year old kids, or clowns, or anything else that we can imagine. I kind of feel that Jojo Rabbit is almost essential viewing, because of the way the story is told.
Waititi never frames his Adolf as any more than what Jojo thinks Adolf should be, and uses him as a symbol of how Jojo starts to lose his faith in the Nazis. I view this as a very good thing: Nazis are bad and we should be teaching kids that they probably shouldn’t be following them. In Germany in the 1940’s, however, they were all the rage, and it’s easy to see how a kid would get sucked into it. He’s even told at one point that he’s a kid that wants to play dressup. His father is missing, his sister has died mysteriously: he wants to join the group that has power, that can prevent all of this.
There’s a great moment towards the end of the film when Germany is really getting attacked and cut off from the world for the whole… you know, being evil thing, where Jojo is having an imaginary dinner with Adolf. While Jojo is trying to force down whatever he can gather as food is scarce, he imagines Hitler dining on Unicorn. It’s a striking moment, tying together a kid’s imagination with that loss of faith. He’s glaring at Hitler, trying to wonder how he can just sit there eating while everyone else is starving.
Loss of faith is a strong theme throughout the movie. (That and shoes-tying. I’m not going to get into this here because there’s a major spoiler involved with it, one that even I’m not going to spoil here. Just… watch it.) One of Jojo’s trainers in his camp and eventual mentor when he can no longer fight is Captain Klenzendorf. He lost an eye because of what he refers to as “Operation Screwup” and it’s very clear that he does not believe in the cause anymore, and is going through the motions. This is also portrayed by Jojo’s best friend, Yorki, who actually gets to fight. Which, again, is pointed out as ridiculous, but he often speaks truth with things such as how the Nazi’s allies aren’t all extremely Aryan, so why are they all teaming up.
There’s a lot in this movie. I could write pages about Rosie, who’s one of my favorite characters, or Elsa who has a truly heartbreaking moment, or the war, or even the arc of Klenzendorf, because I think it’s a very rich one. I want to focus on Jojo because at the end of the day he is a kid. Someone makes a point in the movie that wants to be a part of something. How do we deal with a protagonist who is joining one of the most evil groups in the world, but turning away from it? I think you deal with it the way Jojo Rabbit does: by acknowledging that there’s a lot of ways to change someone’s mind. Sometimes it’s propaganda. Sometimes, it’s meeting one person and putting a human face on suffering.
That’s the strength of this movie. It reminds us that sometimes our monsters are created by their environment, and what they need is a type of understanding and caring to come out of it. Jojo is a kid. He hasn’t grasped what being a Nazi is. The movie starts with scenes from World War 2 Germany being played against a German version of a Beatles’ Song being played, with Hitler being equated to a rock star. This easily gets us into Jojo’s head: he’s being manipulated and it’s really easy for us to judge from today-times, when we know everything that happened. But for a 10 year old, that’s a lot tougher. He just knows there’s this popular dude who’s face graces a bunch of posters.
That’s what makes propaganda so insidious. It gets inside of us. It tells us what to think, usually when we’re vulnerable. Watiti has a tough sell and he knows it: he works to make us imagine what life would have been like in Germany in this time. All around there is evidence that things are collapsing, such as Captain Klenzendorf preparing for invasion, or even Yorkie being drafted into the army and being given a uniform made of essentially paper. (Although he claim’s it’s space age material.) But we are seeing things through Jojo’s eyes, many points literally through this Adolf character. That’s why this film is almost essential.
Putting on a real face for someone he hates: that’s how his mind is change. The contrast of real Elsa to imagined Hitler is one that plays out through the film, fighting for Jojo. And that’s what makes it amazing. We get to see the transformation of a kid who’s messed up, yes, but needs to be confronted with what he’s doing. He’s someone who thought he was doing something right, and when confronted with the reality, makes steps to actually change.
That’s a powerful message.
Hamlet T. Wondercat says
Out of Five