Taika Waititi’s (Māori) Jojo Rabbit (2019) is a film that simultaneously reminds audiences of the beauty of youthful innocence and the pernicious toxicity of Nazism—two things that moviegoers of all ages in this moment of xenophobia and nationalism could stand to be reminded of.
Note: spoilers ahead.
Known for his work Thor: Ragnarok (2017), What We Do in the Shadows (2014/2019), and Eagle vs Shark (2007), Taika Waititi has made a name for himself in Hollywood by injecting comedic dry wit into traditionally serious genres. In Jojo Rabbit, Waititi directs a brilliant ensemble cast featuring Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, and scene-stealing newcomers, Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie. Waititi’s direction evokes the whimsical atmosphere of Wes Anderson while his script satirically shows the illogic of National Socialist ideology and the degree to which its acolytes must contort their minds to fit into it. Waititi, himself, very nearly steals the show in his role as Jojo’s imaginary friend, der Führer, Adolf Hitler. He skips and hops, sings and schemes as a child’s image of Hitler, guiding young Jojo through tough choices, hard questions, and the age-old task of growing up.
The bright, colorful houses lining the square reinforce the naïveté of the young Jojo Betzler as he navigates the world around him and reevaluates his blind faith in National Socialism. Jojo is an ardent disciple of Nazi propaganda and an enthusiastic ten-year old boy eager to be a part of a movement and play with his friends when an ill-timed accident at camp cuts short his dreams of Nazi glory. Faced with an injury that removes him from the line of duty (quite literally, as his best friend Yorki is conscripted to face the coming Soviet army), Jojo relies on his imaginary best friend Adolf Hitler to keep the faith and prove his worth to the Reich in different ways.
When Jojo discovers a Jewish stowaway, Elsa, in the walls of his home, he decides to write an exposé on Jews, “Yoo Hoo Jude [Jew],” so that he and his fellow Nazis won’t have any problem identifying them (since Jews look and act like ordinary people, surprise!). As Jojo spends more and more time with Elsa, he realizes that his beliefs of a horned, winged, scaly race of sub-human Jews are entirely in his head, just like his hero, Adolf. Elsa takes on the responsibility of rebuilding the remnants of innocence in a young boy consumed by Nazi ideology. Ultimately the bond between Jojo and Elsa both sates his childish imagination and dispels his idiotic racism and party ideology.
As Jojo recognizes the humanity of his houseguest, he also grapples with his relationships to the adults in his life. Jojo’s mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, balances single parenthood, hiding a Jewish girl in her home while keeping her secret (unsuccessfully) from Jojo, and surreptitious anti-war activities, all while maintaining a pragmatic but bubbly attitude. Jojo’s substitute father figure, Captain Klenzendorf, played by Sam Rockwell, conceals his contempt for his war wound which has left him in charge of the local chapter of Hitler Youth with thinly veiled sarcasm, his close (read queer) relationship with Officer Finkel played by Alfie Allen, and his furtive attempts to protect Elsa and Jojo. Jojo’s evolving beliefs force him to question the kinds of people his mother and Captain Klenzendorf appear to be in front of others, and the people they truly are—the choices they make when the panopticon of the totalitarian ‘other’ is averted. Waititi’s depiction of these characters emphasizes the inherent lack of trust between family members and friends in a totalitarian state. Meanwhile, Johansson’s and Rockwell’s performances illustrate the significance of innocuous actions and inactions in a world where any deviation from Nazi doctrine was grounds for a visit from the Gestapo, if not execution.
In the western canon, there is no lack of films that address World War II, the Holocaust, and Nazism. The USC Shoah Foundation, however, has selected Jojo Rabbit to be used in the development of classroom curriculum. This particular achievement speaks to the sincerity of Waititi’s message of anti-hate, as well as the growing need to effectively educate children about ingrained prejudices, virulent ideologies, and individual agency. Throughout the movie, there were several moments when I felt as though I was experiencing a story about the Holocaust and National Socialism for the first time. These moments bring to mind the gravitas of the little girl in the red coat in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). If I experience this feeling while watching Jojo Rabbit, then how might children feel as they see this film as their introduction to the Holocaust and Nazism?
As the 2020 award season has progressed Jojo Rabbit and Waititi both have been nominated for an array of awards, from the Writers Guild of America (WGA), Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and the BAFTA Awards, and on Sunday night at the 92nd Academy Awards, Waititi took home the Oscar for “Best Adapted Screenplay.” In his acceptance speech, and later in the press room Waititi spoke about the resurgence of Nazis, hate speech, and intolerance, but the most poignant moment was when he accepted his Oscar and he talked about the role of storytelling in indigenous cultures. In a particularly poignant moment he said, “I dedicate this [award] to all the indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories…we are the original storytellers and we can make it here as well.” Waititi has a gift for creating stories that resonate with audiences, and in this particular moment, he was the protagonist in a narrative of decolonization and hope.