Johannes Betzler, better known as Jojo, is a boy ten years of age. Despite being considered scrawny by his peers, he is, by most accounts an ordinary kid – except for the minor detail that he has an imaginary friend named Adolf Hitler. Jojo is one of the many children indoctrinated in the mandatory Hitler Youth program. Even as the tides of conflict have turned against Nazi Germany, the jingoistic Jojo remains ever hopeful that his country will prevail.
The premise of Jojo Rabbit immediately brings to mind classic satirical films such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or Mel Brooks’s The Producers. Due to Adolf Hitler being one of the single most infamous figures in recorded history, the idea of making him into a living punchline would seem doomed to fail. However, there is a method to this madness. As Mr. Brooks himself argued, reducing such an evil person to a joke robs him of any kind of lasting influence he may have had. If nothing else, the comedic portrayals of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime lend themselves well to a treasure trove of black humor.
The real Adolf Hitler never makes a physical appearance in Jojo Rabbit. The Hitler you see is merely Jojo’s perception of him. If the genuine article’s reputation didn’t precede him, one could be forgiven for believing Jojo’s imaginary friend as nothing more than a manifestation of that cool adult figure children look up to – whether it’s their own father or an uncle who lets them get away with things their parents wouldn’t.
The Hitler presented in Jojo Rabbit doesn’t get much screentime after the first act, but every scene with him is hilariously memorable. The funniest joke about him is staring you in the face as soon as he appears. He is played by none other than director Taika Waititi himself. According to him, the only way he could get a studio to fund this project was by portraying the dictator himself, thus avoiding a casting call. He manages to do an excellent job in the role, and the idea of a New Zealander with Irish, Maori, and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry playing Hitler can tickle anyone’s funny bone.
To supplement the joke, Mr. Waititi made it a point to do as little research on Hitler as possible. In doing so, he bred numerous historical inaccuracies in his script, thereby causing a lot of gags – such as Hitler offering Jojo a cigarette at one point despite quitting long before 1945 – to develop as naturally as possible. Mr. Waititi’s portrayal also uses a lot of slang that wouldn’t exist until many decades later, causing a purposely jarring disconnect between the beliefs he espouses and his speech patterns. He is simultaneously supportive of Jojo while also reminding him of his inadequacies – exactly as a caring Social Darwinist would.
The first act of Jojo Rabbit brings to mind Federico Fellini’s Amarcord in how it portrays Nazi Germany. Much like how Amarcord depicts Fascist Italy as a happy-go-lucky carnival, Mr. Waititi cast Nazi Germany in the same idyllic light in which its protagonist sees it – the opening sequences set to the Beatles’ German version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to convey this feeling. To Jojo, going to a training camp where he learns to cast a Stielhandgranate may as well be a summer vacation. These attitudes extend to one Captain Klenzendorf, who is the commandant of the Hitler Youth camp. He was wounded in action and is now forced to supervise the camp. The idea of the archetypical grumpy, jaded camp counselor heading a facility that oversees the indoctrination of a new generation adds to the film’s farcical nature.
Jojo ends up getting a rather stark reality check when he, after a pep talk with his imaginary friend, decides to throw one of the grenades in question. He did this to prove to the other kids that he is tough enough to be on the front lines with his father, who is fighting in Italy. Unfortunately, the grenade bounces off a tree and explodes at his feet. He survives – albeit with minor facial scars and a temporary limp. To Jojo’s dismay, this prevents him from joining the army, though considering that the film takes place near the end of the war, he – quite literally – dodged a bullet.
However, while Amarcord maintained its whimsical tone so as to subtly critique the kind of people who unquestioningly supported Mussolini’s reign, Jojo Rabbit suddenly adds an element of drama in the second act. One day, upon returning home from spreading propaganda posters and collecting scrap metal, Jojo discovers a hidden compartment in his home. There, he discovers a teenage Jewish girl named Elsa Korr. Idolizing the Nazi party, Jojo naturally seeks to turn her over to the Gestapo. Elsa manages to stop him by revealing that his mother would be killed due to willingly hiding her. It is right here that the when the tone of the film takes a drastic turn. Elsa’s plight serves to remind the audience that in spite of its goofy tone, the people Jojo idolizes are committing heinous crimes against humanity.
This development also serves to formally introduce Jojo’s mother, Rosie. Even if she loves her son, Rosie is experiencing a waking nightmare. Good parents always strive to raise their children to become model citizens themselves. Rosie’s story is therefore highly relatable to parents who feel they have failed their child. They do what they can to ensure their children turn out well only for societal pressures to shape them into monsters. To have a child embrace such a fatalistically cynical ethos at such a young age speaks to how frighteningly effective Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine was. One really feels for her when she expresses a desire to get her son away from that, knowing her innocent boy is somewhere in the brainwashed effigy wearing his skin.
Indeed, considering that parent characters are often neglected in works starring children in the lead role, I give a lot of credit to Mr. Waititi for how he wrote Rosie. She definitely has an interesting arc to her character in that you get the feeling she’s just part of the complacent masses, sending their children off to a conflict to a war they cannot win in the long term. This turns out to absolutely not be the case when Jojo espies his mother leaving “Free Germany” messages in town. Rosie and her husband are, in truth, members of an anti-Nazi resistance, thus explaining why she would hide a young Jewish girl.
Ultimately though, what I find to be the most compelling aspect of aspect of the film concerns the relationship between Jojo and Elsa. Aspiring to be a member of the Nazi party, Jojo learns from interacting with Elsa that everything he knows about the Jewish is complete nonsense. By gradually becoming nicer to her and discarding his Nazi beliefs, she, in turn, comes to trust him. Even if he fervently believed in the Nazi party’s beliefs, there were plenty of hints that Jojo wasn’t completely gone. His idolization of Hitler had a genuine innocence to it, and when he is forced to kill a rabbit at the camp, he finds himself unable to do so. This is what earns him the disparaging nickname “Jojo Rabbit”. From there, his character progression is shown in a clever, yet not entirely overt way. When he begins the film, he wears a uniform worthy of the Hitler youth. By the time the Gestapo pay his house a visit, he is wearing normal clothes.
Along those lines, and despite what one might think simply going off of its premise, Jojo Rabbit gets extremely suspenseful in the final act. When the Gestapo arrive at his house, the film suddenly turns into Schindler’s List. Although the authorities throwing out “Heil Hitler” causally is amusing, it doesn’t change the fact that one slip-up will cost Elsa her life. She then takes a serious risk by posing as Jojo’s deceased sister. Fortunately, the one in charge of the investigation is Klenzendorf, who, upon asking Elsa personal information about Jojo’s sister, accepts the false information without alerting anyone else.
Jojo isn’t out of the woods after that scene either. Many days had the Nazis hanged traitors, displaying their bodies in a town square for all to see. One day, Jojo discovers to his horror that his mother is among those executed. His complete devotion to the Nazi party amounted to nothing in the end when his idols take a loved one away from him. Even if their respective journeys were far different, Jojo’s story panned out in a similar fashion to that of Elsa’s. Both of them lost their parents to a cruel regime responsible for ending millions of lives, and now all they have is each other.
Shortly thereafter, the German army finds they can no longer stave off the inevitable. Aside from Japan, the whole world has turned against them with the American and Soviet forces closing in on Berlin. Realizing there is no way out, Adolf Hitler commits suicide. This is when things officially go off the rails with many important characters dying – either to get the final laugh against the Allied forces or out of a deluded belief that theirs is a salvageable situation. By the end, the only three named members of the main cast left are left.
Naturally, Jojo’s imaginary friend doesn’t let a minor setback such as suicide stop from making one last appearance. In light of Jojo’s character development, Hitler obviously represents the boy’s Nazi programming. Much like how the Nazi party revealed itself to Jojo to be pure evil, Hitler drops any pretense of amicability once his ward begins questioning his policies.
It’s exceptionally rare for an imaginary character to have an arc, but Mr. Waititi pulled it off. When the film begins, he is a caricature who wouldn’t feel out of place in a Mel Brooks production. In his final appearances, Hitler proceeds to eerily channel his real-life counterpart, becoming increasingly unhinged as Nazi Germany marches to a decisive, unavoidable loss. Jojo then proceeds to break free from his indoctrination entirely, demonstrating his free will in the most glorious way possible – by defenestrating Hitler with a kick worthy of Bruce Lee. In spite of its bittersweet tone, the film ends as amusingly anachronistic as it began – by having Jojo and Elsa dance to “Heroes” by David Bowie.
Exactly how Jojo Rabbit was received, much like Joker, which saw its release around the same time, makes for an interesting discussion. Just hearing it pitched would lead many to envision Mr. Waititi’s project ending up on countless “What were they thinking?” retrospectives decades down the line. When it was actually released, the numbers told a different story. Unlike Joker, which left American critics divided, they still, generally leaned positive when it came to assessing Jojo Rabbit. However, their consensus led many of their followers to believe Jojo Rabbit was a forgettable, mid-tier effort. This assessment looked downright foolish in hindsight when the Oscar nominations for the ninety-second ceremony were announced in 2020 and Jojo Rabbit ended up being among them. It’s true that bad or mediocre films had been nominated – and even won – before 2020, but I can say the nomination for Jojo Rabbit was not a misstep. This is especially so when you consider leading child actor Roman Griffin Davis ended up with a Golden Globe nomination for his trouble – at age twelve, impressively.
Some critics dismissed Jojo Rabbit as a shallow, feel-good piece, but actually giving it the time of day reveals there is much more to it than that. Jojo Rabbit actually does remind me somewhat of Joker inasmuch that it was disliked by certain critics due to actively challenging their sensibilities. You see, it was common practice for film critics and journalists alike to write as though their audience existed on a level below the dirt itself. It had gotten to the point where critics could, and often did, directly insult their own readers with impunity. To give you an idea of how bad things got, one of the top critics in the country, Owen Gleiberman, called the audience “that loyal puppy of megaplex-product enthusiasm” in a 2019 article after the X-Men film Dark Phoenix flopped. Such sentiments would’ve likely gotten him fired if we were still using newspapers – or had he been working a retail job.
The reason this bears mentioning is because I posit Jojo Rabbit failing to win over certain contemporary critics could be attributed to the fact that it chose not to play by their rules. Many critics deemed the common theatergoers a lost cause, which is the exact opposite sentiment expressed in Jojo Rabbit. It makes the case that good people can get wrapped up in bad causes, and implores its audience reach out to them rather than give up and assume they’re irredeemable. Journalists may have criticized the film’s ultimately optimistic nature, but the primary strength of Jojo Rabbit is Mr. Waititi’s ability to expertly mix absurdity with seriousness.
Fittingly, while critics argued amongst themselves, audiences gave it a warm reception. Yes, the film that everyone, and I mean everyone, thought would bomb in the box office ended up being a crowd-pleaser. Critics at the time tried justifying their antagonistic, misanthropic attitudes, yet the success of this film demonstrates why it never pays to underestimate the audience – they can oftentimes latch onto a quality work long before the professionals.
Final Score: 7/10