Jojo is a ten year old boy growing up at the tail end of the Second World War. Living alone with his mother, Jojo spends his days attending a Hitler Youth camp with his best friend Yorki. Germany is losing the war. The atrocities committed by their armies have already happened out of sight of normal citizens. But Jojo doesn’t know that; he’s ten. He knows that his teachers have taught him all Jews are evil. He knows that the propaganda seen on a daily basis is the truth; why else would the adults show it to him? He knows that Hitler is leading them to righteous victory to protect Germany. He knows that his father, who has been gone for years, is fighting on the front line for the fatherland. Jojo knows these things with all the wisdom granted to him by his age.
It doesn’t help that Jojo’s best friend is Adolf Hitler, who appears at inopportune times to give him pep talks. Taika Waititi, a Polynesian Jew, plays Hitler in white face. It’s as delicious as it sounds.
His mother Rosie, played beautifully by Scarlett Johansson, tries to keep her impressionable son from falling deeper into darkness. She knows what the war has wrought and fears her influence isn’t enough to help Jojo before it’s too late.
One day Jojo hears sounds coming from upstairs. Hiding in the walls is Elsa; a young Jewish girl who has managed to survive this long while all others have not. Jojo, terrified and curious of seeing an actual Jew, begins an apprehensive truce with her which turns his world around.
Thomasin McKenzie plays Elsa, an eighteen-year-old who knows what’s happening in the world. Her entire family sent to the camps, she remains alone in hiding. When Jojo attacks her with all the insults he can muster, Elsa realizes what Rosie saw – Jojo is sick. It’s easy for us to project expectations on Jojo, but Waititi smartly refuses to condemn him. Jojo has multiple shortcomings which at other times would be nothing more than growing pains of a troubled youth. But during Hitler’s reign each one of them could lead to the death of others. Jojo may not always have our sympathy, but it would be cold not to empathize with the folly of youth.
Many too have wanted Elsa to represent all of Jewish suffering, and the film flat out refuses it. Even Rosie, with all her good intentions, can’t help but speak of “her people” as one singular entity. As with the Germans, Waititi refuses to let one person define a nation. When Elsa and Jojo compare the achievements Germans vs. Jews, they fling names of famous authors, poets, and musicians at one another. Each defined not by their actions, but their race. It isn’t until Jojo can look past Rilke’s race as an idea and instead what his words stir in Elsa that he begins to question the world around him.
This is not a movie about the Holocaust or the second World War. They’re both horrific events that have come to define a point in history, but this isn’t a story about them. It’s a story about how quickly and dangerously indoctrination works in a broken society. Mass hysteria and the cult of personality can rise anywhere and any time, turning into a wild animal once unleashed.
It’s also a great reminder of just how wildly successful the German propaganda machine was at the time. The Hitler Youth camp quickly divides kids by gender roles; the boys blow stuff up and the girls prepare themselves for a future as breeding machines. Book burning becomes a game. Everything is a slogan. The opening montage sees Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL timed with a German-language cover of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
We laugh at how quaint it is now. But for a country recovering from a devastating war, a powerful leader promising easy solutions was not easily ignored. We were great once, we can be great again. It’s such a simple and strong promise of nothing but vagaries that it echoes even in present day.
Even Waititi’s Hitler isn’t a representation of the man. Instead he is the inner voice representing irrational fears, doubts, and racism that reside within all of us. He’s a malicious demon that we wrestle with daily, something we strive to rise above. Because we see him through the eyes of a child, he’s also capricious, petty, and nonsensical. But as Jojo’s worldview begins to broaden, he grows into monstrous tantrums and elaborate rants in fear of losing control. It’s a brave move to suggest that each member of the audience has the capability of devolving into a Nazi. But to also put their own face on that affliction is even gutsier.
This has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Some have even accused Waititi of being a Nazi-sympathizer. The main complaint being that humanizing the German people somehow minimizes the inhumanity perpetuated by the SS. Such a thing couldn’t be further from the truth. JOJO RABBIT makes it very clear what it wants to say from the start: Nazis are ignorant thugs who grew to power through the indoctrination of the young and meek.
JOJO RABBIT is set in 1945, yet Nazi thugs still march the streets even today. The question presented is clear; if it’s so obvious how dumb and obvious these guys are, why have we allowed them to return? Why are children still wooed by Nazi ideology? Is it just stupidity? A sense of belonging? Or even fear? Maybe it’s all of them. “You’re not a Nazi,” Elsa tells Jojo. “You’re a ten year old boy who likes to wear a uniform and be part of a club.”
When we first see Jojo he gleefully runs through his hometown throwing up the Nazi salute. To him the world is pastel colors and happiness. But we can see what he doesn’t: bread lines, poverty, and crippled veterans. The world around him is falling apart, but Jojo is so comfortable it’s easy for him to ignore it.
Does JOJO RABBIT suggest that all Nazis are just misunderstood and disenfranchised young men? Of course not. But it does present a compelling argument that this is where it starts. The implication that Jojo can grow out of his beliefs by falling in love will undoubtedly feel naive to some. But how else would it happen? Humans are not binary, and just as empathy can be stifled – it can also be re-learned.
As the war begins to close in on Jojo and Elsa, Waititi’s plea becomes even clearer: There is no future without compassion, and there is no compassion without understanding.
In the end there is no certainty of the future. There is only hope.