“I’m worried he’s going to make Hitler sympathetic,” a colleague whispered behind his hand before a pre-dawn screening at TIFF. In a few days, Jojo Rabbit, the latest from auteur writer/director Taika Waititi, would make its debut. What would Waititi’s latest have to say in the same festival that already produced the wildly divisive Joker, the crowd-pleasing Knives Out, and the arresting Marriage Story? How did Hitler fit into the narrative? Having paid close attention to the director’s early work, I ought to have expected the tender, thought-provoking and gorgeous exploration into anger and despair. The slapstick comedy evenly blends with the highbrow monologues that signal the arrival of a new age Charlie Chaplain. But, I couldn’t have predicted I would cry at a Nazi’s death.
In the opening moments of Jojo Rabbit, a German-language cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles plays over the fanatical cheers of the Nationalists lining the streets for their führer. Using historic black-and-white footage with the rocking guitars that would launch Beatlemania twenty years in the future creates a more immediate understanding of the inner clockwork of 10-year-old “Jojo” (Roman Griffin Davis). Davis delivers a performance far beyond his 11 years: Lonely and isolated, he portrays the desperation and the vulnerability Jojo possesses as he enters the Bund deutscher Arbeiterjugend (Hitler Youth).
Run by the recently demoted Captain “K” Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), the Hitler Youth Summer Camp trains boys to hunt and throw grenades, while girls are taught to how to bandage a wound and give birth. But to Jojo, it represents his opportunity to become a man and a member of Hitler’s army. Production designer Ra Vincent details Adolf Hitler’s god-like status in Jojo’s mind by cementing his mug all over Jojo’s bedroom walls. Waititi’s script showcases Jojo’s fan-boy nature with detailed facts about the dictator with which the boy burdens his mother (Scarlett Johansson), and a charismatic imaginary Hitler that comes to Jojo’s aid when he’s feeling his most vulnerable.
Like a Whitman-esque dream, imaginary Hitler (Waititi) contains multitudes. Waititi performs the role of dictator with such ridiculous fanfare, his interpretation couldn’t be mistaken for the real thing. Occasionally clown-like with a reserved charisma aimed directly at Jojo’s sensitive side, Hitler works to build the young boy up like a father would pal around with his son. But when dismissed, this internal figure becomes irate, launching into a horrendous tirade typically reserved for large crowds. Representing the fear of going against the state, the insecurity around his status as a male, and the longing he has for his father, who has been away at war for over a year Jojo’s imagination powers his entire world view; it just happens to take the shape of Hitler.
The anger linked to that symbol permeates the tender-hearted Jojo. His mother, Rosie, knows the son she raised still exists behind the rhetoric he recites. She tries her best to reach him. Though disgusted by his beliefs, she pours love into him—spending every moment she has trying to convince him he is worthy of love, explaining to him the destructive power of hate, and doing her best to keep the cruelty of the world outside her door. Johansson stuns as an even-headed but passionate single-mother. Her dry wit mixes well against Davis’ sincere ignorance and bratty temper tantrums.
Waititi makes it impossible to forget Jojo’s youth and vulnerability. Every adult in his life, aside from his mother, treats the Nazi occupation as either a glorious opportunity for adventure or a holy responsibility to the fatherland. Either way, dedication to the cause becomes a measuring stick of an individual’s worth. I couldn’t help but think of the young men indoctrinated into the rising white supremacist movements in the United States detailed in an Anonymous account in The Washingtonian titled “What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right.” In the article, a concerned mother wrote:
Who was living upstairs in the room with the bunk beds, surrounded by glow-in-the-dark solar-system decals? I couldn’t understand how this had happened. The situation was ludicrously overdetermined, as contrived as a bad movie. My husband and I poured everything we had into nurturing an empathetic, observant child. Until then, it had seemed to be working. Teachers and family friends had always commented on Sam’s kindness and especially his gentleness toward the “underdog.” Then an internet chorus of alt-right sirens sings their song of American History X to my kid and he turns into the evil twin of Alex P. Keaton: merciless, intolerant, unwilling to extend the benefit of the doubt to anyone.
Jojo eventually tries to write a book on how to tell Jewish people apart from good Christians, since they all look alike. He plans to give the book to Hitler as a gift. When he discovers his beloved mother hides a young Jewish girl in his dead sister’s room, Jojo’s world crumbles. He cannot turn Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in, or he and his mother will be killed. So he uses Elsa to help learn the lurid details of Jewish life. But Elsa exudes effortless cool. A friend of Jojo’s late sister, she’s the only person who treats Jojo the way he feels—old enough to make his own decisions and someone to be feared like a real Nazi.
Of course, the more Jojo learns about Elsa, the more he views her as a real person and not the demon his school taught him she would be. As the two form a friendship, Jojo begins to fall in love. Along the way, his loyalty to his country, his understanding of right and wrong, and his family’s role in the war effort change dramatically. Juxtaposed the haunting synths of the ’80s and the guitars of the ’60s, there’s a message of revolution humming underneath Jojo Rabbit. A promise that the fears of today will not last forever.
The journey across this sea of emotional turmoil culminates into a final storm—a battle on the homefront. The end of the war arrives with the Americans. Quickly, the Nazis that have shaded Jojo’s world are rounded up. Their misdealing and their hateful speech meet a just end. In a manner that does not exonerate him but rather shines a light on the possibility of good that exists in all humans, Captain K, the flamboyantly gay, salty hardened war vet takes a moment to do one final good thing with his life.
Waititi infuses a level of humanity into WWII without blindly forgiving those responsible, nor hiding behind the guise of good guys in bad situations, nor allowing even a 10-year-old boy to get away with hate without swift retribution and thorough self-examination. Combined with larger-than-life characters, splintering tragedy and a unique coming-of-age journey, Jojo Rabbit conveys a message about love’s ability to conquer loneliness. That’s a message that’s fervently needed.
Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Taika Waititi (based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens)
Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and Taika Waititi
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Joelle Monique is a Rotten Tomatoes-certified critic. A graduate of Columbia College Chicago, her passions include movies that sit at intersectional crossroads and high stakes drama TV. You can find additional work at Pajiba and follow her on Twitter.