Movie Review: “Jojo Rabbit” (2019)

jojoLet me start by saying I’m pretty tired of World War II films. There have been a lot of good ones, but there have been so many that at a certain point, I became exhausted with the period. It feels sometimes like the movie industry is barely aware of other times in history.

It’s understandable, of course; the period is full of drama, tragedy and fascinating stories. And the Nazis, with their horrific atrocities, cruel ideology, sinister iconography, and reputation for machine-like efficiency, are the perfect villains.

But all the same, I’ve seen so many movies about WWII that it takes a lot to convince me another one will contain something I haven’t seen before.

Jojo Rabbit is a film about a ten-year-old German boy named Johannes Betzler. Johannes is a fanatical believer in the Nazi party, even as the tide of war is turning against them. He is an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth, and his joy at learning how to fight for the Fatherland is only momentarily dampened when two older boys taunt him for his refusal to kill a rabbit in order to prove his devotion, which earns him the mocking nickname “Jojo Rabbit.”

He is consoled at this moment by his imaginary friend, to whom he often turns for encouragement: his ten-year-old mind’s idealized version of Adolf Hitler.

Imaginary Hitler is played primarily as a goofy, comical slapstick character, egging on Jojo’s fantasies of fighting glorious battles in a jovial, often nonsensical way. He seems like a lovable if rather silly father figure–something which Jojo craves since his own father is away in the war.

Unfortunately, taking his imaginary friend’s advice leads Jojo to an accident with a grenade, from which he needs a lengthy rehabilitation period. During this time, his mother Rosie more or less demands that the Hitler Youth leader now demoted to office work find odd jobs for her son while she is out working.

Jojo is assigned menial tasks such as distributing propaganda posters. One day, on coming home, he hears a noise from the bedroom that belonged to his now-deceased older sister and goes to investigate. He discovers a hidden panel in the wall, where there is a small nook concealing a teenaged Jewish girl named Elsa.

Jojo is terrified, and Elsa commands him not to tell his mother that he knows about her, threatening him with his own Hitler Youth dagger. Jojo retreats to his bedroom, to discuss with imaginary Hitler what to do about this existential threat.

Jojo, of course, believes completely in every anti-Semitic trope Nazi propaganda ever employed. And of course he would–it’s all he’s ever heard in his whole young life. However, since Elsa is older and stronger than he is, and since revealing that his mother is sheltering her would get her into trouble as well, Jojo is left with only one choice: to negotiate.

The result is a series of cautious interviews with Elsa, during which Jojo asks her various questions in an effort to learn the secrets of the people he so fears. Elsa at first is annoyed by his absurd, bigoted questions, and gives facetious answers, but slowly, the two form an almost sibling-like relationship.

Meanwhile, Jojo’s mother tries to manage things as best she can. In one touching scene, she and Jojo argue during dinner–she is gladdened by news of the Allies’ advance, Jojo is outraged at her disloyalty to the Reich. Jojo says he wishes his father were there, and, incensed, Rosie puts on his father’s Wehrmacht jacket, smears soot on her face like a beard, and gives a stern-but-loving impression of her husband.

This scene was fantastic. If you want a taste, you can see the beginning of it here. Prior to this, I’ve only seen Scarlett Johansson in action movies and one dreadful period drama. I was really impressed by her performance in this film, and this scene was the best example.

As the situation deteriorates further for Germany, things become more and more desperate. The film’s comedy mixes with horrific tragedy. The horrors of war, and of the Nazi government in particular, are not sugarcoated despite many of the film’s lighter elements. There is death and destruction and more than one heroic sacrifice. And at the end of the horror, Jojo and Elsa are faced with a very different world than either of them grew up in.

I’ve skipped over quite a lot in this review–there are some extremely interesting supporting characters in this film, such as the Hitler Youth leader Captain Klenzendorf and Jojo’s friend Yorki. Every performance in the film is terrific, but it would take quite a while to describe exactly why.

Normally, I would try to give them all their due, but this is another one of “those” reviews, where I need to go on at length and build up my case, so I’m not going to give you an analysis of every character on top of that. I’m sorry to do this to you twice in one week, but I just had to post this on the 75th anniversary of V-E Day.

Jojo Rabbit is a very polarizing film. Carrie Rubin, whose opinion I value extremely highly, called it her favorite film of the year. On the other hand, CineMuseFilms, one of my favorite film blogs, considered it one of the worst movies of the year.

What’s up with that? (If you’re expecting me to answer this straightforwardly like a normal person; I’m very sorry. You must be new here.)

Let’s start with the most basic question: what kind of film is it? It’s usually listed as a comedy-drama. Sometimes words like “war” or “dark comedy” or “satire” get thrown in as well.

So what’s the comedy part? Well, as I said, imaginary Hitler does a lot of silly, goofy, slapstick stuff. Many of Jojo’s lines are humorous, in the way they depict a naive child trying to seem mature and wise despite having been brainwashed with propaganda all his life. And the supporting characters do some comical things–such as Captain Klenzendorf’s ludicrously flamboyant redesign of the German uniform.

What’s the drama part? Well… it’s World War II. People get killed. Including–I’ll try not to spoil too much–good people. People we like, who don’t deserve it. This ain’t Hogan’s Heroes–the stakes feel real.

This definitely qualifies it as “dark comedy,” in the sense that the humor revolves around very non-humorous subjects. And most dark comedies are also usually satires.

For example, take the 2017 film, The Death of Stalin. It’s a slapstick comedy about the political struggle in the Soviet Union during the power vacuum created by… well, you’re smart; you can probably work out what event they were dealing with.

The point of mixing grim subjects like state-sanctioned murder and blatant propaganda with vulgar comedy in Death of Stalin is to underscore how fundamentally absurd the Soviet government was. The situation was bleak, but also laughable in the sheer illogical madness the lunatics in charge had created in their relentless pursuit of power.

There is something similar going on at times in Jojo Rabbit–maybe most obviously in the scene where the gestapo raids Jojo’s house, in which, despite the deadly seriousness of the situation, there is a bit of comic business where everyone must greet everyone else with a “Heil Hitler!”

But there’s more to the story here. After all, slapstick satires of Nazi Germany and its leadership are not exactly ground-breaking. For example, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or The Three Stooges’ You Nazty Spy! (both released in 1940) covered that concept pretty well.

The key lies in the opening credits, when we see footage of cheering crowds saluting the real Adolf Hitler, set to a German version of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” This segues to a scene of young children frolicking at the Hitler Youth camp. It looks almost pleasant; kids having a good time at summer camp–except for the extremely unsettling presence of swastika banners and SS lightning bolts.

I remember seeing a documentary once about Hitler’s rise to power, and the way his speeches and events attracted throngs of cheering supporters. From what I gather, during his ascent he really did have an almost rock star-like following, complete with groupies.

Hitler-as-lovable-imaginary-pal/celebrity… young children playing amid symbols that every modern audience instantly associates with death camps and bodies piled in ditches… what on Earth is this film saying? If it’s out to satirize Nazism, why make it look so benign; like some sort of fan club?

One of the most interesting aspects of crowd psychology is the observation that people in large groups are not as smart as any one of them is individually. The old saying about groupthink “none of us is as stupid as all of us” summarizes it well. Large groups of people are roughly as intelligent as children–naive, easily-swayed, and in search of a leader (parent) to guide them.

Understanding group psychology is critical to understanding Nazism and the other authoritarian movements of the early 20th century. Once you realize that while 1930s Germany may have been composed of many brilliant individual scientists, doctors, artists, designers, soldiers, thinkers, tradespeople, businesspersons etc., their collective psychology was about as easy to manipulate as a ten-year-old boy’s: anyone who seemed confident and strong and promised them grand adventures of glorious conquest while wearing cool, scary-looking uniforms could get plenty of buy-in from the people.

Obviously, that didn’t work on everyone. But it worked on enough people. Tragically.

We all know, now, that the Nazi upper-echelon was composed of people who were evil psychopaths. Armed with this knowledge, it is unsurprising that the policies they implemented were evil and insane. The student of history looks back and wonders, “Why didn’t the German people see what was happening?”

The answer is that the evil psychopaths were handed the levers of power with the consent of enough of the people. This is not because all of these people were as evil or insane as the men they ushered into power, but because they, in the child-like state induced by mob psychology, were all too eager to be deceived by the implausible ethno-nationalist fairy-tale they had been told.

The German philosopher Oswald Spengler said of Hitler, “We need a real hero, not a heroic tenor,” implying that Hitler was merely play-acting at being the kind of leader the country truly needed. Despite this, Spengler voted for him anyway–because he too, despite being a man of learning, was susceptible to ethno-nationalist flights of fancy. So it goes.

Put in patriarchal terms, Hitler was playing at the role of father to a nation that collectively wanted just such a figure. Hitler tried to present himself as following in the tradition of beloved strong leaders from Germany’s past, like Otto von Bismarck and especially Frederick the Great. But he wasn’t. Both Frederick and Bismarck were pragmatic administrators, not single-minded zealots willing to destroy their own nation in a doomed bid for martial glory.

I dislike allegorical interpretations as a rule, but I think it’s reasonable to read Jojo and the imaginary Hitler he creates to stand in for his absent father as a representation of the German national psyche at the time–believing in comforting lies rather than admitting the awful truth, until the appalling costs become too great and too personal to ignore.

My interpretation of the film is that it’s a dramatization of how a collective mental disease progresses. But collective anything is difficult to portray, and so young Jojo is the substitute for “the people”–a malleable mind representing herd psychology.

I said before the film was polarizing, and so you may well ask, did I love it or hate it?

Well, I loved it. I thought it was one of the best World War II films I’ve seen, because it offers an insight into just how such a horrific event could have happened. Usually Nazis in film are portrayed as nothing more than cardboard villains, but in this film, the truly sinister thing about Nazism is made apparent: the awful seductiveness of it. How it could so easily become normalized, especially among young people who knew nothing else.

But if you were expecting a true satirical comedy, I can see you would be disappointed. Even offended, perhaps. Because the objective of the film isn’t to satirize Nazism. It’s more of an examination of how Nazism took root, which is a very dark and uncomfortable subject, and it’s frankly not very much fun to think about, so they sprinkled in some jokes. Otherwise it would just get too damn dispiriting.

And whatever else may be said about Jojo Rabbit, it isn’t dispiriting. It ends on a hopeful, if bittersweet, note. The fever has broken, the film implies, and the children have a chance to build a better future.

4 Comments

  1. Hi Berthold – this is a fantastic review. I haven’t seen Jojo Rabbit. I understand your skepticism about watching another WW2 movie. And the sensitive issue of how to portray Hitler is a prominent discussion point. I do like dark comedies, though. They can make serious points in a different way. It’s not all laughs. I may take a look at this down the road. Hope you are doing well.

    1. Thank you very much. Glad you liked the review. Thanks also for the Twitter share. I am well, hope you are too. 🙂

  2. I can see the analogy of what happened then to what’s happening now. Not interested in watching it.

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