“Jojo Rabbit” comes to us marketed as “an anti-hate satire” — a way for distributor Fox Searchlight (now owned by Disney) to almost express regret for the fact that they are releasing a movie about a 10-year-old Nazi whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler himself. Though “Jojo Rabbit” is certainly an “anti-hate satire,” it is far more bold and interesting than that apologetic tagline would let on. The film does espouse the well-trodden message of “we only fear the ‘Other’ because we don’t know them,” a very “Green Book”–level take. But “Jojo Rabbit” is actually a movie that does far more radical things, such as critique the very premise of ideology and treat the psychic world of a child with genuine respect.
Written and directed by Taika Waititi, who is half-Māori and half-Jewish, and adapted from a book by Christine Leunens, the film follows Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old who becomes increasingly excited to engage with Hitler Youth programs as the tide of the Second World War subtly shifts against Germany. We meet his mother (Scarlett Johanson) and a bureaucratic and battle-scarred Nazi/father figure (Sam Rockwell), who are supportive of this pursuit in the way that one is supportive of a child; they know he’s an immature zealot of an idiotic racist cult, but it still would be cruel to take the devotion away.
The plot of the movie mostly concerns his relationship with Elsa, a Jewish teenager (Thomasin McKenzie) whom Jojo discovers his mother has been hiding in their home, and of course, we meet his imaginary friend, credited as Adolf (Waititi). It is undeniably funny to see Hitler in full uniform talking with a child, engaging with Jojo’s fears about fitting in and being a valuable member of the club, just like a good friend would. His jealousy toward Elsa is also very funny — who would’ve guessed that Hitler was like a passive-aggressive spouse? But the function of this imaginary friend is actually for a quite powerful ideological critique.
“You’re not a Nazi, you’re a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club,” Elsa tells Jojo. She is right, but the desire to dress up and be part of a group doesn’t stop at the age of 10. The inclusion of the imaginary Hitler is a sly way for Waititi to question all ideology. Politicians of all affiliations want to be your friend; they take selfies with you and retweet your videos. We get caught up in this and forget that they are not our friends. They are people with massive amounts of power who use it at their discretion and the discretion of their shadowy friends.
There are moments when the Hitler character stops being a funny imaginary friend and starts screaming at Jojo with the violence that we normally associate him with. The funny uniform and club are fun for Jojo, until they are revealed to be the way that power inserts itself into our lives, like a cancer that will not be extracted until even our suicide becomes an act done for ideology.
There are moments when the Hitler character stops being a funny imaginary friend and starts screaming at Jojo with the violence that we normally associate him with.
The third act of “Jojo Rabbit” takes the satirical mask off of this position, and as such is surprisingly dark after the first two acts which, like all great satire, mock dogma with absurdism and heart. The absurdism is still there (Sam Rockwell as Kaiser Wilhelm/David Bowie with a machine gun, leading a child army into battle), but it is much colder and seems like it has been extracted from a more brutal and violent movie (if you enjoyed this, I recommend Elem Kilimov’s “Come and See”).
However, even in the disjointed third act, the movie does what I think is the more radical thing: it treats Jojo like a person. So many American movies about children mock them for not being adults; their worlds are not taken seriously at all. Many more are made for children but are about adults, like superhero movies that, instead of engaging with the turmoil of being 10 years old, tell kids that they should squash all that and just grow up.
The fact of the matter is that the emotional world of young children is indescribably vast and complicated, and with an imaginary friend and several beautiful moments (an X-ray shot of butterflies in Jojo’s stomach worked well on me), “Jojo Rabbit” portrays this world better than most movies. The result is something deeply heartfelt and bold — a movie about caring even when you shouldn’t, about knowing yourself even when you don’t think there is anything to know, about not ignoring your inner life but treating it with the weight that it deserves.