“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”– Jojo Rabbit
You know it’s a good movie when you clap spontaneously, laugh like a maniac, and feel your heart torn to shreds in the same two-hour stretch.
Jojo Rabbit is that movie.
Saw it last night and have a lot to say about it. If you haven’t seen this wonderful movie, stop reading, watch the trailer, and get your tix. If you have seen it and want to discuss, keep reading.
“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”
This is a movie about the choices between authentic living and belonging and the false kinds of life and belonging offered in conformity to the mass. In this case, that mass is totalitarian Nazi Germany.
The Default: Belonging to the Mad Collective
The movie starts with young Johannes (Jojo) heading off to summer camp to “become a man,” (despite not being able to tie his own shoes) sprinting away to a delightful German version of The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
Turns out summer camp is a Hitler Youth training camp for 10 year-old soldiers. It’s all sad and absurd, but Jojo tries to go along with it all.
But he refuses to do one thing: when ordered to kill a defenseless rabbit, he tries to give it a chance to escape. That earns him the nickname “Jojo Rabbit” from the older Hitler Youth bullies. In an attempt to strike back, Jojo decides to double down on the “brave Nazi warrior” thing and nearly blows himself sky high with a grenade.
We see that Jojo is different. He is gentle. He is sincere (if sincerely brainwashed). And with precisely one real friend, he isn’t exactly fitting in.
Did I mention his other friend is an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler?
Jojo heads into this story longing for acceptance and belonging in his culture. Unfortunately his culture is a suicidal death cult. It’s hard to imagine that so many other kids shared the same backdrop for growing up, but that’s why this film is so important.
We soon learn the reason for Jojo’s decent heart.
His mother Rosie (played by Scarlett Johansson) is a woman of kindness, independence, ferocity, humor, and imagination. In other words, she is everything the Nazis are not. Humor and imagination are bulwarks against tyranny in Rosie’s home, and her playful, loving interactions with Jojo are some of the most touching moments in the film.
We also learn that Rosie is part of the German resistance, and (much to Jojo’s horror) she is hiding a young Jewish girl in Jojo’s deceased sister’s bedroom.
Determined to write a book on Jewish people (all the better to defeat them, to his mind) Jojo begins to get to know the young woman, whose name is Elsa. Terror turns into curiosity, curiosity turns into tolerance, and tolerance turns into friendship – and later a serious crush.
As Germany falls apart in the latter days of the war, Jojo experiences a transformation: from imaginary friendship (with Hitler) to true friendship with Elsa. He a more authentic belonging in than ever with his Nazi world. Elsa is an unconquered individual with a rich inner life, and her differences only make her more valuable as a friend.
Jojo’s false sense of belonging in the world of Nazi-dom begins to lose its luster.
Then Rosie is hung for her participation in the Resistance, and the Nazi dream (nightmare, rather) of Germany is falling apart all around Jojo’s ears. Kids, civilians, and old German shepherds (actual shepherds, not dogs) are conscripted to defend Jojo’s city in a last desperate fight. Little boys who stayed in the “club” of the Hitler Youth become cannon fodder – a horrifying look at where inauthentic “belonging” ends up.
Authentic Living and Belonging
When the dust settles, Jojo and Rosie have each other. And though Jojo is afraid to lose her, he makes the decision to set Rosie free from her hiding place.
Before he does so, a brain-spattered Hitler – once his imaginary friend, now transformed into a truer hateful image – warns him that unless he chooses the totalitarian way, he will end up in a “desert of insignificance.” This is one climax of the conflict between Jojo’s false life + false community and his true life + true community.
Jojo responds appropriately: he kicks imaginary Hitler out the window with a well-placed foot to Nazi nuts.
And in another perfect closing of a loop, he ties one of Elsa’s shoes for her as she prepares to step outside.
And then they dance as free people.
Jojo goes from being his society’s false idea of “being a man” to “doing what he can” (as good a definition of true manhood as any). Elsa, who had a childhood denied to her, found her imaginative inner life in Jojo and now takes a step into free womanhood in the outside world.
But more importantly, both find what it means to live authentically and to belong authentically (Elsa’s story in all of this is a whole other essay).
This movie shows life’s resilience and beauty despite tremendous evil. Rosie knew that:
“As long as there’s someone alive somewhere then they lose.”