I recently watched Taika Waititi’s latest film compelled by its audacious premise. A Hitler Youth with an imaginary friend who happens to be Hitler? The conceit smacks of a demented Calvin and Hobbes but I left the theater with the movie reels spinning in my mind and spent much of the next day pondering over it and the more I thought about it, the more depth I found in the film’s message.
I think many people could not look past the Wes Anderson-esque aesthetic and the happy face placed over history’s most notorious monster. I had my own reservations that this would simply be a lazy return to late 90’s irony, subversive crudity without any substantial value, after all, does the world really need another Hitler comedy? See, a thousand years ago in the aftermath of the 2016 US elections, there seemed to be an endless conversation concerning how to represent fascists in entertainment. The argument’s two camps were split into those who believed in Mel Brook’s approach (a la The Producers’ “Springtime for Hitler” finale) of removing power from oppressive people by making them appear silly and those who believed that making something as insidious as white supremacy appear comedic rendered it harmless in the eyes of the audience thus making it easier to dismiss real-life iterations of toxic ideology (or worse, accidentally creating a friendly access point for the history-ignorant to latch onto). Jojo Rabbit somehow walks the line and does so all the way to a satisfying conclusion.
It happens about halfway through when the tone of the film takes a sudden turn from happy-go-lucky romp to a grey and anxious thriller. Waititi wants to remind you that yes, this is still a film about Nazi Germany and you will be upset several times over. There are still well-timed moments of levity, but they aren’t used as mere throwaway laughs to ease the tension so much as they are buttresses in the grand design of the film’s message.
The conflict that threads every character in this film together is one of personal identity struggling to survive a regime of oppression. The most obvious examples of this belong to Elsa, the Jewish girl living in the walls of JoJo’s house and JoJo himself, a ten-year-old fanatic of the Reich who, due to a pretty funny grenade accident, cannot become a soldier. It’s important to remember that the mechanisms of genocide work to erase not only a person, but a people and, further, a people’s culture and history. Wishing to aid the war effort, JoJo begins writing a book on how to identify a Jewish person by interviewing Elsa who gives fanciful answers to feed his imagination. They bond over this activity as well as the activity of letters JoJo writes in the voice of Elsa’s late boyfriend. It’s not unlike the plot of The Book Thief in a lot of ways but because of the lighter tone, the heaviness hits subtly here.
That’s the main story, a young girl who doesn’t fit in society because of a government-mandated Holocaust and a young boy who doesn’t fit in a murderous society because he has a gentle heart. But the more I thought about, the more I realized that the entire film is full of misfits, which scratches the core of its sentiment: that fascism dehumanizes everyone— both the perpetrators and the victims.
Rosie is not allowed to exist because she wants a legitimately free Germany– that it is not enough to be German, one must conform to the party’s ideals or perish. The disgraced (but ultimately benevolent) Captain K is not allowed to exist as an openly homosexual man, or even a proper soldier. JoJo’s friend Yoki is not allowed to exist as a young boy, displayed in a hilarious subplot of him ever getting promoted through the Wehrmacht despite his incompetence and age (Rosie tells JoJo directly that he shouldn’t be thinking about war at his age, but should be climbing trees and falling in love). Even Rebel Wilson’s Fraulein Rahm seems to quietly resent that she is not allowed a more valuable role in the war because of her sex, saying through perhaps a smile too tight, “It is a good year to be a girl.”
The method in which these characters are able to endure are through acts of creativity. As stated, Elsa and JoJo write and draw together. Rosie dances and jokes (and drinks). She also does some character acting as JoJo’s absent father with a beard made of soot to soothe the boy’s anger. Captain K is more preoccupied with designing his costume (the reveal of which is probably the most epically FABULOUS scene of drag since Hedwig) than he is planning for the American and Russian invasion. He also drinks heavily and becomes increasingly disheveled throughout the film (until he walks the catwalk battlefield with Alfie Allen’s Finkel in enthusiastic tow) and it doesn’t escape my notice that the only moral adult characters find the current climate unbearable sober.
But it’s Captain K’s final scene that puts the whole film into perspective. He gives JoJo three gifts. He reminds him that his mother was a legitimately good person. He encourages JoJo’s creativity with the book he, along with a terrifying gang of Gestapo, laughed at previously. He sacrifices himself in an act of feigned belligerence so that JoJo can go be with Elsa.
There are many themes tied up before David Bowie cinches up the credits, but Captain K’s performance probably nails most of them. Respectively: you mustn’t forget the value of a person’s individuality; art is what sustains us and brings us together, and the pursuit of art is a noble one; heroism isn’t defined by the battlefield; family is what is important, biological or not.
And it’s the final scene when Elsa finally opens the front door and experiences freedom for the first time in a long while. JoJo does too, although he is slower to realize it, as he had only just come to terms with the fact that he too was a prisoner of the Nazis. The two primary characters, who found and kept each other after the regime had taken everyone else away from them, begin to dance to Bowie’s Heroes sung in German, we end on an optimistic note.
The reason why JoJo Rabbit works now is that it shows you the daily life of Nazi Germany which ranges from boring to beautiful to horrifying and all over again. We rarely see the less dramatic depictions of wartime Germany and might find it shocking to find that it might not be all that different from life in America currently. Perhaps then, to survive with any real dignity, we must embrace each other, value art, dance when we can and take life as it comes.
I’ve got a horror novella coming out shortly and it is available to pre-order here