A complex film about a complex subject, but finds a delicate balance between humor and respect for the subject matter. A satire or parody about Hitler and the Nazis isn’t anything new, from Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator to Bialystock and Blooms Springtime for Hitler and even Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards, one of the darkest times in the world’s history has been the source material for motion pictures. While Taika Waititi may not be breaking ground in using the Third Reich in this manner, he is offering a new perspective through the mind of a child of Nazi Germany. And that is where we spend the majority of the film–in the brainwashed mind of a child. His imaginary friend Hitler is a manifestation of the ideals Jojo (our central character) holds dear, misguided as they may be. Just as we interpret reality through our worldview that is shaped by our circles of influence, beliefs, past trauma, and the families in which we were reared, Jojo interprets the world around him in a similar fashion. Only his world was largely shaped by the effective Nazi propaganda that turned Germans against one another, and as you know, the rest is history. On one hand, he is still an innocent child whom cannot even remember to tie his shoes; on the other hand, he has been radicalized to completely buy into the ridiculous portrait of the Jews that the Nazis paint for the youth. On the surface, this film comments on how Jojo’s worldview of the Jews transforms; however, there are nods to other groups that were also seen as undesirables such as gays. The fact that is wasn’t only the Jews whom found themselves targets for annihilation is often forgotten by the masses. If Cabaret depicted the age of innocence that ended with the rise of the Third Reich, then JoJo Rabbit depicts innocence and disillusionment in the final days of the war. Though there are times that Waititi comes close to crossing the fine line that he is dancing, he never crosses it, which allows the film to be enjoyable and comment on coming of age in a rather provocative way.
Jojo is a lonely German boy who discovers that his single mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic. Aided only by his imaginary friend — Adolf Hitler — Jojo must confront his blind nationalism as World War II continues to rage on.
Unlike Bialystock and Bloom’s Springtime for Hitler in the brilliant musical The Producers, this satire on Hitler and the Nazis doesn’t quite hit it out of the park as well as Mel Brooks’ hilarious film. However, neither is it a disaster. That is likely to do with just how close to the atrocities of WWII that Jojo Rabbit takes us. If you’re worried about the film being in good taste, you needn’t. It may come close to being in poor taste at times and even questionable in others, but it remains in a position that can find ironic humor while not glossing over the evil actions of the Third Reich. It is imperative that audiences realize and accept that the movie is the manifestation of the propaganda-filled mind of a 10 year old German boy. We ostensibly experience the world through his eyes. Jojo lives in a complex world that is beginning to implode around him. All the while, when we first meet him, he remains committed to that for which the Third Reich stands. Taika Waititi takes a similar path to commenting on the central conflict to that which was followed by Chaplin, one that seeks to deconstruct fascist thinking.
Instead of simply the audience witnessing the events on screen that lead to destroying the foundation of fascist thinking, our central character of Jojo slowly learns just how vile the Nazis are, and that their way of thinking is a threat to humankind. How? For the full effect, you have to watch this film. But for the sake of argument, and not to over simplify, Jojo forms a friendship with a young Jewish girl hiding in the walls of his house. In a way, Jojo is in a similar position as audiences were in when Chaplin’s famous film was released–in a world in which Hitler and the Nazis were ever present. Here is where we have the creative layers that give Waititi’s film so much depth. Just as the world watched as Germans (and other Third Reich sympathizers) began to realize that the Nazis were masters of propaganda that brainwashed their own people, we watch as Jojo goes through a similar journey and transformation. As 21st century citizens of the “western world,” we often wonder just how otherwise intelligent, rational people could believe the ridiculous lies that were fed to them by the Nazis. This film paints an image of just how that worked. For all intents and purposes, if you convince the youth of your world to believe and buy into your radical platform, then the youth grows up to be the adults of your world. Thus, a following and movement is born.
When tragedy hits home, in a mindblowing way, Jojo comes face to feet with the reprehensible, seemingly unstoppable evil of the Nazis. This moment is when he realizes what he has been supporting and advocating. And even in his brainwashed state, even after he said the vile things he said, we still feel great empathy for him. And it’s this moment where he is tested to see if he is capable of growing as a person and thinking as an individual. Jojo’s eyes are opened, for probably the first time ever. He also begins to see how others, that he respects in Hitler’s army, have seen the evils of their ways and are doing what they can to make a difference. It’s also at this point that audiences realize that the captain, Jojo so admires, is gay and his (lieutenant, I suppose) is his lover. The subtext isn’t clear, but Taika tips his hat to this likely being the case. Whereas Jojo may not pick up on the captain’s secret, he is forced to accept that the captain could a sympathizer because he does something that Jojo realizes is not in line with policy and procedure. All throughout the movie, Jojo is challenged. Challenged by Hitler, challenged by the captain, challenged by his mother, and challenged by the Jewish girl hiding in his walls. It is by way of these consistent challenges that he grows as an individual and sees the flawed thinking of the Third Reich.
Jojo Rabbit is a provocative motion picture that provides audiences with a glimpse into the mind of a brainwashed 10 year old Nazi boy whose worldview radically changes through challenges to his identity. It may not be as edgy or as outstanding as we had hoped that it would be, but it is still a solid film that delivers a different perspective on a sensitive subject.
Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!