‘Jojo Rabbit:’ A Satirical Take on the Dangers of Fanaticism

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Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

A still from the film, "Jojo Rabbit."

Iris Tsouris, Editor

When I first saw the trailer of Jojo Rabbit, directed by Taika Waititi, pop up in my YouTube recommendations, I was equal parts amused and concerned. As a movie about Nazi Germany, albeit still marketed as a comedy, Jojo Rabbit looked like it had a high risk of going wrong, subject to the kitsch of other WWII satire. Yet over Thanksgiving break, when I actually got the chance to see the film, I found that this was not the case.

Here’s the gist: Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany. Enthralled by the prospect of joining the Hitler Youth (or, perhaps, by the prospect of fitting in), he devotes himself to a lifestyle of fanaticism, brainwashing and utmost faith in Adolf Hitler. This utmost faith manifests itself in the form of imaginary friendship: in an attempt to find guidance, Jojo conjures a version of Hitler (Taika Waititi) up in his mindone that is encouraging, sassy and playfulakin to his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). 

Unfortunately, even with imaginary-Hitler’s help, Jojo fails miserably at Hitler Youth Camp. When ordered to kill a rabbit as a display of strength, he cannot, earning the nickname of “Jojo Rabbit.” Jojo is too sensitive, too sweet to be a good Nazi, even if he is so deeply entrenched in the ideology. About 10 minutes into the movie, he is sent home after an accident with a grenade bomb, which leaves him with a limp and a scarred face. 

At home, Jojo and imaginary-Hitler devise a plan to make Jojo a better Nazi. But their plans are thwarted by Jojo’s motherkind-hearted, tough, the most charismatic character of the story, she stands in not-so-obvious opposition to the Nazi movement. And Scarlett Johansson totally blows this role out of the water; she portrays Rosie as such a genuinely good person and mother to Jojoyou can’t help being envious of their relationship. 

Yet when Jojo discovers that Rosie is housing Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish girl around 16-years-old, in the walls of their house, his blind fanaticism is directly challenged. Elsa, seeing the opportunity to capitalize on Jojo’s fear, tells him that Jews grow horns and sleep upside down, like bats. Later on, she is more earnest and tells him, “We’re like you, but human.” She is sharp and witty, and as time passes, the two form a close bond, despite imaginary-Hitler’s avail.

Waititi’s use of the imaginary friend storytelling device is genius. As Jojo becomes alienated with Nazism, imaginary-Hitler becomes less and less like Rosie, and more and more like real-Hitler. I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that as a PG-13 movie, Jojo Rabbit makes the best use out of its single allotted f-bomb. In addition to this, it showcases one of my all-time favorite movie tropes ever: the slow-motion explosion, juxtaposed with tranquil music in the background.

That being said, Jojo Rabbit is not without its flaws. While I was charmed by the Wes Anderson-y vibe of Jojo’s camp experience, I was slightly disappointed by the first quarter of the movie. This part is objectively the funniest, the most detached-from-reality that Jojo Rabbit ever isbut something about it falls short: it’s a little too self-aware of its own offensiveness, and thus tries to overcompensate by being more ridiculous, more over-the-top than beforelike an off-kilter SNL sketch, it’s gone a bit awry.

Instead, the story rises to its true potential when Jojo is met with real conflict (and inevitable heartbreak). Like Slaughterhouse-Five, Jojo Rabbit, while still a satire, is most impactful when tragica ‘sad-tire’, if you will. In fact, I think it works best as a dramedy, but needless to say, satire is still a vital part of its storytelling. 

There’s a big problem with more serious WWII films where Nazis are depicted as sinister, looming threats. Although they’re not intentionally glamorized, Neo-Nazis flock to these depictions, particularly because in these films, Nazis are powerful. The satire in Jojo Rabbit, while for comedic effect, is necessary because it rips the power away from Nazis through exposing the stupidity of their hatred. Hate, when made serious, is powerful. What better way to remove this power than mockery?

But what I love most about Jojo Rabbit is that it does not focus on ridiculing Nazis, or war, or even fascism as a whole; that would be pointless, overdonean over-exhausted subcategory of satire. Instead, Jojo Rabbit shows a quiet resistance to extremism: people doing “what they could” in dire, critical circumstance. It demonstrates how kindness can arise from unexpected places. Most of all, it depicts a young, impressionable boy’s escape from institutionalized fanaticism in a coming-of-age manner, making it applicable to today.  

And with that, I wholeheartedly recommend seeing Jojo Rabbit this holiday season. Not only did it make me laugh, it also left me feeling positively verklempt (okay, I shed a few tears). The best part is, while Jojo Rabbit may be the cutest movie about Nazis that you’ll ever see, it won’t be off-color or garishly edgy: it is undoubtedly successful in treading the fine line between showcasing the silliness and dangers of fanaticism.