Jojo is the conduit for the film’s message that hatred is learned, and that our compassion must be nurtured, not repressed.
TW: This piece has mention of anti-semitism, Nazism, and murder. Read with caution.
CW: This piece has spoilers for Jojo Rabbit.
In a socio-political climate where legacy media publications continue to platform white supremacy and anti-semitism, a satire set in Nazi Germany should be the last thing winning an Oscar. Thankfully, writer-director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok) strikes a careful balance between humor and horror in his latest film, Jojo Rabbit, crafting a feature that critiques the Nazis it depicts without coddling or glorifying them. No doubt, it’s Waititi’s perspective as a Māori-Jewish man that makes the movie so emotionally resonant.
Jojo Rabbit —adapted from Christine Leunens` novel, Caging Skies, follows 10-year old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) as he begins his first weekend at a Hitler Youth training camp in the late years of World War II. A Nazi fanatic who’s “massively into swastikas,” Jojo becomes conflicted after discovering that his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is providing sanctuary to a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the crawlspace of an upstairs bedroom. The film’s central tension plays out between Jojo’s indoctrinated allegiance to Hitler and his compassionate heart and love for his mother and, later, for Elsa.
Several critics have dismissed the film as a “feel-good hipster Nazi comedy” or lamented that it treats viewers like children. However, Waititi’s decision to adapt this story as an anti-hate satire from the eyes of a 10-year old kid was purposeful, key to presenting the message of the film. As he explains his decision in the production notes:
“Adults are supposed to be the people who guide children and raise them to be better versions of ourselves. Yet when children look at us in times of war, I think adults seem ridiculous and out of their minds.”
Experiencing the story from Jojo’s perspective is critical to fully realizing our responsibility as adults to interrogate and dismantle our instinct to react to fear with violence for the sake of generations to come. Jojo is the conduit for the film’s message that hatred is learned, and that our compassion must be nurtured, not repressed. It reminds us that we’re all capable of radical growth and change if we remain open to questioning what our systems teach us.
Throughout the film, characters consistently remind us of Jojo’s Nazi fanaticism. At the beginning, Jojo’s imaginary friend, literally Adolf Hitler (Waititi in hideous blue contact lenses and a ridiculous mustache), talks him through his anxiety over his first day with the Jungvolk. Reassuring Jojo that he’s the “bestest and most loyal little Nazi” he’s ever met, Adolf hypes him up before sending him on his way. At one point during the climax of the film, Captain Deertz (Stephen Merchant) of the Gestapo sees the Hitler paraphernalia papering Jojo’s bedroom and remarks, “I wish more of our young boys had your blind fanaticism.”
According to Adolf’s pep talk, we learn that Jojo struggles with his own insecurities; for example, his inability to tie shoelaces or his lack of popularity. We also discover that it’s just him and Rosie at home, with his father off in the Resistance (unbeknownst to Jojo, who thinks he’s fighting for Germany) and his sister Inga having recently passed away from influenza. Jojo is clearly a vulnerable and sensitive young boy who just wants to protect the only family he has left, and finally feel like he belongs somewhere.
Unfortunately, Jojo won’t find a sense of belonging amongst the Jungvolk. When the activities become too violent, his discomfort is palpable as he shrinks in fear and runs away from the brutality. Seeing this, the teen leaders of the camp later challenge Jojo to kill a rabbit by snapping its neck. They egg him on by chanting “Kill! Kill! Kill,” a disconcertingly gleeful bloodlust on their faces. In contrast, the younger kids glance around with unease, seemingly sharing in Jojo’s hesitance at their sociopathy, but chant anyway to appease them. He opts to set the rabbit free instead, to which the teens take the opportunity to mock his sensitivity and humiliate him.
It’s through his relationship with Elsa that Jojo embraces this sensitivity, realizing that what he’d been taught as a 10-year old was outright wrong. Naturally, they’re antagonistic towards each other at first as he struggles to unlearn his hatred. Jojo makes a childish attempt at emotionally torturing Elsa after she tells him about Nathan, her Resistance fighter fiance. He writes her a letter as Nathan and ends their engagement. “If she had a heart, this would break it clean in two!” Adolf rejoices as Jojo scribbles away. Jojo discovers that she does indeed have a heart when he hears her crying from her crawlspace, and hastily pens another letter reversing the break-up. Jojo’s sensitivity and compassion are instinctual to him.
Without guidance from his parents, it’s understandable that Jojo initially falls for the propaganda peddled by the Nazis. Despite being part of the Resistance herself, Rosie effectively encouraged him to join the Hitler Youth, allowing him to assimilate into the dominant culture for his own protection. “It’s a hard thing to be a mother,” she admits to Elsa. “How do you love a son […] who believes the things he does?” Thankfully, Rosie remains patient with him, holding onto hope that “the little boy who loves to play” is still in there under all the Nazi fanaticism. Obviously, he is.
Towards the end of the film, Jojo’s allegiance to Hitler wanes while his “romantic” love (I’m highly skeptical of heteroromantic relationships involving children) for Elsa waxes. He’s visibly nervous and frightened when the Gestapo visit his home for an inspection, especially when Elsa poses as his late sister. As the Allies invade Germany, Jojo is stunned by the senseless death and destruction surrounding him, narrowly avoiding execution at the hands of Americans. He finally tells a despotic and frantic Adolf to fuck off before kicking him through the window.
The film concludes as Jojo and Elsa begin to dance on the steps of their home — a sign of their respective newfound freedom. Jojo no longer has to perform hatred to fit in or be safe—Elsa loves him as a younger brother simply for who he is. Without the fear and shame of being punished and humiliated for his sensitivity, Jojo is afforded humanity and allowed to grow as a person. In turn, he recognizes and values Elsa’s humanity despite having been taught otherwise. Taika Waititi does a fabulous job with Jojo Rabbit, reminding the audience that we too are capable of change when we’re encouraged to love and not hate.
Roslyn Talusan is a Canadian freelance culture writer and anti-rape activist. Represented by The Bent Agency, she’s working on a memoir documenting her experience with workplace sexual violence. Her writing aims to critique media and dismantle societal beliefs that uphold rape culture. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.