I don’t think there are a whole lot of directors I’d trust to make a funny movie that involves Nazis, but Taika Waititi has earned it. Though now I keep wondering: a) Has Mel Brooks seen this movie? and b) Did he love it as much as I hope he did? Because Jojo Rabbit is fucking hilarious, and there are a few scenes that are just straight out of the Mel Brooks playbook. But it’s also incredibly uncomfortable to watch at times, and heartbreaking. Which is how it should be, I think.
Jojo Rabbit is about a ten-year-old German boy named Johannes in the waning days of World War II. Johannes is part of the Hitler Youth, wants to be a good Nazi, and has Adolph Hitler (played by Taika Waititi himself) as his imaginary friend. After accidentally blowing himself with a grenade at what’s effectively Nazi Boy Scout Camp, Jojo despairingly concludes he’ll never get to go to war and die gloriously for Germany, so he’ll have to do what he can for the cause at home. But then he discovers that his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa in the walls of their house, and he has to make some tough decisions.
I’ve already said that this movie is funny, so I don’t need to go on and on about it. Explaining all the jokes is not something we need to do–though I think it’s worth noting that some of the best moments of humor are ones I also found deeply uncomfortable because there is, obviously, so much Nazi imagery in this movie. Taika Waititi playing a ten-year-old’s mental vision of Hitler, going from cheerful and puppyish to deeply threatening and angry when Jojo starts to lose his faith is something to behold. There is so much in this movie about the indoctrination of children that took place, the absolutely ridiculous propoganda that props up authoritarian figures, and the death cult of fascism. While it treats the subjects with humor, it also never lets you forget that this shit actually happened and is still happening, that it’s both ridiculous from the outside view and deeply destructive and terrible. It’s a movie that asks via Elsa and Jojo’s mother Rosie how someone can be saved from this indoctrination, when there are only a few tentative voices to speak out against the collective removal from reality. Rosie is afraid to tell her son anything, though she does her best to remind him of who he was before the Nazi’s started to take him away from her. At one point, Elsa tells Jojo that he’s not really a Nazi; he’s a young boy that wants to put on a costume and be part of a club. She’s both mocking him and offering him a bridge out of the ideological tar pit he’s mired in, if he can bring himself to take it.
So particularly in that aspect, Jojo Rabbit is a social commentary that is relevant to the modern world.
Elsa is a great character; she’s someone fighting to survive at all costs, and manages Jojo by threatening him rather than trying to appeal to humanity it’s not immediately apparent he has. Her moments of conversation with Rosie, when they both are quietly at their most hopeless, show two women figuring out how to make it through another day. Rosie is also wonderful; she’s trying to save her son and also keep him safe from her own decisions, and also be a single mom. She and Jojo claim his father is off fighting for Germany, while Jojo’s fellow Nazis claim he’s a traitor.
I think the main complaint to have about Jojo Rabbit is that it doesn’t really touch on the true horror of war or the Holocaust; the closest we get is at one point Elsa tells Jojo that the last she ever saw of her parents, they were being put on a train; they were sent to a place that no one ever returns from. It’s a weirdly shy and bloodless way to refer to mass murder, and I’m still not sure why that decision was made. Maybe it’s because we’re really seeing most of the movie through Jojo’s eyes (which might be why the color story is so picture-book-like); in the sea of propoganda that Jojo and his fellows are swimming in, going to war is an abstract goal and Germany is Totally Winning. Which is why the few scenes of any kind of brutality or dirtiness–when the other Hitler Youth try to get Jojo to kill a rabbit, when Jojo sees the people who have been hanged, when there’s a truckload of wounded soldiers coming back from the war who are dirty and bloody–seem almost out of place. They’re not something Jojo can really process.
That might be why I wasn’t actually expecting the emotional gut-punch that the film ultimately delivers. Beneath the brightly-colored production design (which is at times almost cartoonish), it asks what good people should do in times like these. There’s a moment early on in the film when Rosie and Jojo are walking through the town together and they see other Germans who have been publicly hanged, flagged with pronouncements that they are traitors.
Jojo: What did they do, mama?
Rosie: What they could.
I won’t go into spoiler territory, but Jojo Rabbit offers that acts of heroism are not big, or flashy, or particularly glorious. That small acts of resistance have meaning.
I really liked the movie and am going to be thinking about it for quite some time to come, but I definitely don’t think it’s going to work for everyone. I’ll also note that there’s a lot of ableist language in it (Jojo becomes disabled after the aforementioned “blowing himself up with a grenade” thing and living in a society that obviously hates physical imperfection) and a lot of racist and anti-Semitic slurs. Par for the course when the topic is Nazis, but also not stuff I expect everyone to be fine with going into their ear-holes.