A Strange and Important Film

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When I first saw a trailer for Jojo Rabbit, I had no interest in viewing it. Hitler Youth frolicking in the forest like Boy Scouts at a Jamboree? Adolf Hitler sidling up to our young protagonist with an ingratiating grin? No thank you. The Holocaust was serious business. So was Aryan expansion into all of Europe.

And yet, like a witness at a crash scene, I couldn’t avert my eyes. So there I was on a Tuesday night, ready to see if it was truly Springtime for Hitler in Hollywood. My discovery? Not exactly.

Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a charming, lonely, 10-year-old, blue-eyed Aryan blond who can’t wait to join the Hitler Youth camp. He is excited to prove his love for Germany, but really he’s “just a 10-year-old kid who likes to collect swastikas and dress up in funny clothes,” as one character observes. Mostly he just wants to belong. The boys run around the forest hollering and laughing. But Johannes flinches and runs away when it’s time to play battle games. The other boys are older, stronger, and more aggressive. He doesn’t want to get hurt. He’s only ten, after all. Just a boy. We never lose sight of that in this film.

Hitler Youth frolicking in the forest like Boy Scouts at a Jamboree? Adolf Hitler sidling up to our young protagonist with an ingratiating grin? No thank you.

The camp is supervised by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), the one-eyed demoted lunatic who invites the boys collegially to “Call me Captain K” in one moment and then stirs them into a killing frenzy in the next. He tells them, “Today you become a man,” ironically echoing the purpose of a bar mitzvah in the religion they are taught to despise. When Captain K tells Johannes to wring a rabbit’s neck to prove his willingness to kill Jews, Johannes lets the bunny go and then runs away like a — well, like a frightened rabbit. Hence his hated nickname, Jojo Rabbit.

Here’s what you need to know about this film: The whole time the boys are chanting “Kill! Kill! Kill!” I wasn’t thinking about Lord of the Flies. (Well, maybe just a little bit.) I was mostly thinking about Looney Tunes’ Wagnerian “Kill the Wabbit! Kill the Wabbit!” scene with Bugs Bunny in Valkyrie getup.

And that’s the perverse magic of Jojo Rabbit. It’s insanely funny, utterly serious, and totally bizarre. It manipulates you the way Hitler manipulated the masses. And you go along, the way the masses went along with Hitler, because it’s just so compelling. In an early scene, the Beatles’ “Komm, gib mir deine Hand” plays while Jojo runs exuberantly to the youth camp and masses of screaming Germans present their upraised right hands to the Fuehrer in a thundering salute. Yes, they have come to give him their hands. The idolizing hysteria of the Germans mimics the mass hysteria of Beatlemania 25 years later. And hysteria it is. The message is clear: Hitlerism was fueled by hyperemotionalism and little else. Moreover, “Heil Hitlering” becomes a verb in this movie, being used 31 times in a single minute in one particularly satirical scene.

The captain tells them, “Today you become a man,” ironically echoing the purpose of a bar mitzvah in the religion they are taught to despise.

At home Jojo confesses his shame about the rabbit, his loneliness, and his general cowardice to his only friend, Adolf Hitler (director Taika Watiti). No, not the real Adolf, but Jojo’s imaginary friend who, like Calvin’s tiger Hobbes, gleefully stirs him up, urges him forward, and eventually gets him maimed by an overzealous toss of a practice grenade that happens to be loaded and armed. In the comic strip Calvin blames all of his misdeeds on Hobbes, when in reality his pranks and adventures are entirely his own idea. Similarly, Jojo uses his imaginary friendship with Adolf Hitler to gird up his loins and prove his commitment to Germany.

Many Germans would use the “Hitler made me do it” excuse after the war, when in reality they, too, had choices. Stephen Merchant, who plays a threatening but inept Gestapo agent Deertz, said that in preparing for the role he “imagined members of the Gestapo like his character as ‘quite petty bureaucrats’ who, prior to the war received little respect, and during the war let their power go to their heads.” This may have been true of many Germans who welcomed the opportunity to treat their Jewish neighbors with contempt, while blaming their hatred on allegiance to Hitler and the Fatherland. Yet other Germans resisted Nazism, and many of those gave their lives for freedom.

Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) doesn’t approve of the direction in which Germany is headed, nor does she approve of the Hitler Youth organization her son has joined. She is outspoken, feisty, and fashionable in a way that we don’t expect in 1940s Germany. (Director Waititi says that Berliners continued to be sociable and fashionable even during the war, and he wanted to portray that in his film with vibrant colors and bucolic scenery. Kind of like Americans during our wars in other nations.) She is a free-spirited mother who wants to make a difference, even if it means saving just one person. Nevertheless, these are perilous times. Children are being taught to report any examples of disloyalty to Germany or sympathy for Jews. Rosie adores little Jojo, and the scenes between mother and son are endearing and lovely. But she refrains from sharing too much of her philosophy with her son. The fear of snitching is real.

Similarly, Jojo uses his imaginary friendship with Adolf Hitler to gird up his loins and prove his commitment to Germany.

To stir up fear and hatred toward the Jews, outlandish stories are told in camp and at school. An ancestral Jew mated with a fish. Jews have horns, eat babies, and have animal bodies. They read minds and are attracted to ugly things. And they love money. Jojo has never met a Jew (as far as he knows) and believes the propaganda. Of course, Jews are none of these things. And that is a major point of this film — hatred and mistrust are taught by others who want us to hate and mistrust, not by personal experience. Jojo doesn’t realize this, however; he’s just a 10-year-old boy, trained to believe and obey his elders. When he discovers that his mother has been harboring a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in his deceased sister’s closet, he faces the ultimate dilemma: should he report his mother to the Gestapo? For Germany?

And what about this Jewish girl? As time goes on, Jojo’s inner conflict deepens. He confesses to Adolf (who is feasting on unicorn head — I’m not kidding), “She doesn’t seem like a bad person to me.” And isn’t that the point? When we base our judgments on our own experience with people, we’ll discover that some are bad, some are good, some are friendly, some are boring. It has nothing to do with labels. But we’ll never learn the truth if we simply believe what others tell us to think about an entire group of people.

John F. Di Leo warned in a recent Facebook post, “This wasn't some ancient, barbaric country, in some uncivilized, undiscovered territory. It was Germany, in Europe, just 78 years ago. . . . It can happen anywhere, if government is allowed to get too powerful . . . and if politicians are empowered to demonize an innocent group.”

That is a major point of this film — hatred and mistrust are taught by others who want us to hate and mistrust, not by personal experience.

Jojo’s dilemma reminds one of Huck Finn, torn between helping Jim escape and worrying about how his own salvation will be affected for doing it. What courage it takes for Huck to say on his knees, before God, “Then I’ll go to hell if I have to . . . You can’t pray a lie. I found that out.” This young, virtually illiterate boy has too much integrity to ask for forgiveness for something he does not regret doing. He likes Jim. Loves him, in fact. And yet, in the end of the book, Huck and Tom still have Jim hidden away in a cage. Jojo does that too. The film abounds with literary references.

Jojo Rabbit is one of the most engaging films I have seen this year. Like Jack Benny’s To Be or Not to Be (1944), it’s delightfully funny yet deadly serious as it reveals the conflict between freedom of thought and the madness of crowds. I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about choice and accountability.


Editor's Note: Review of "Jojo Rabbit," directed by Taika Waititi. Fox Searchlight, 2019, 108 minutes.



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