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Jojo Rabbit

How do you solve a problem like the Nazis?

Our first solution was to kill their ideological leader and crush their dreams of world domination in WWII. That didn’t exactly work. Granted, the Nazis have never regained the political power or military might of the Third Reich, but various pockets of Nazis and white supremacists have continued to crop up all over the world throughout the decades and into the present day. Even in the USA and Russia — the two nations most directly responsible for Hitler’s downfall — there are prominent neo-Nazi sects. Hell, neo-Nazis have even seen a recent uptick in Germany, the nation that literally outlawed the Nazi Party!

But let’s go back to WWII for a second. In the early ’40s, Frank Capra (yes, the same director who would later make It’s a Wonderful Life) came up with the game-changing idea of taking Nazi propaganda films and morally inverting them. Where the Nazis presented a bold and inspiring show of force, Capra took the same footage and used it to present Nazis as an all-encompassing empire of terror. What better way to send home the point that the Nazis are an existential threat that needs to be wiped out before millions of people are killed?

The unfortunate drawback is that the blade cuts both ways. Anything created to make Nazis look horrifying and destructive can be co-opted by Nazis to make them look strong and triumphant. American History X and Cabaret (specifically the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”) are both prominent examples of anti-fascist works that have been widely adopted and unironically used in neo-Nazi propaganda.

But you know what the neo-Nazis haven’t touched? Goddamn “Springtime for Hitler.”

If Nazis draw their power from fear, what better way to rob them of that power than by ridicule? Through mockery and laughter, not only can we demoralize the fascists, but we can also remind ourselves that Nazis are in fact simply fallible and small-minded bigots who can be crushed like anyone else. But even then, there are significant dangers. Taken too far, parody can make the Nazis look small to the point where we stop taking them seriously as an existential threat. That’s not even getting started on those the Nazis killed in WWII and the Holocaust — the millions of dead and their surviving relatives would certainly have a few choice words about all that bloodshed being treated lightly.

Flash forward to today, when we have white supremacists and Antifa brawling in the streets and on social media. One side proclaims that Nazis are pure evil, we had a goddamn World War to settle that, and punching Nazis is always okay. The other side calls for civility, stating that violence won’t prove anything and may in fact lead fascists to further entrench themselves. How can we hope to convert white supremacists back to the right side of history if we don’t meet them in the middle and at least try to understand them as human beings?

To recap, we have to portray the Nazis as an existential threat without playing into the fear that makes them powerful. Demean and ridicule the Nazis without making light of the blood they’ve spilled or reducing the need for vigilance. Find empathy for fascists without condoning their wicked beliefs. How is it even possible to walk so many razor-sharp lines at once?

Enter Jojo Rabbit, the story of young Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten-year-old Hitler Youth coming of age in the closing months of WWII.

The movie comes to us from writer/director Taika Waititi, who first made his name through the gleefully subversive comedy of What We Do in the Shadows. He then made Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a transgressive, satirical, deeply funny and heartfelt coming-of-age story. But of course mainstream audiences know him best for Thor: Ragnarok, which earned him no shortage of box office clout. Put them all together, and you’ve got the perfect CV for this movie. There’s no possible way any other filmmaker would have the proven experience or the studio leverage to even conceive of this movie, much less to get it made or to make it so well.

Waititi is also on hand to play Adolf Hitler himself, which is inherently funny to begin with. After all, Waititi is a curly-haired and dark-skinned man who looks absolutely nothing like Hitler. He’s also quite famously a native of New Zealand, which is about as far removed from Germany as anyone could possibly get without a freaking space shuttle.

More importantly, Hitler is only ever present as the imaginary friend of our titular Jojo. This means… well, it means a lot of things. But what it boils down to is that this is Adolf Hitler as seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old kid. It’s sort of like comparing an actual T-Rex to Barney the Dinosaur. Thus Waititi plays Hitler as something like a kid in a grown man’s body.

This is something the film keeps coming back to: Portraying the Third Reich in juvenile terms. The simplistic and reductive worldview, the portrayal of others (read: Jews) as subhuman, the fantasy of slaying monsters and becoming a superhero, always getting your way, being special, being strong and brave, looking like a badass… these are all common and perfectly normal fantasies among children (especially young boys). And they also just happen to overlap in many chilling ways with white supremacy.

In short, the film states that fascism is simply an adolescent power fantasy taken to psychotic extremes. White supremacists are basically children who never grew out of pretending to be superheroes, and never accepted that supervillains don’t exist. And that would be fine, except that these particular overgrown children shouldn’t even be trusted with a soapbox, much less live ammunition or an entire nation. This is the dark satirical genius of the film, how the movie successfully portrays Nazis as pathetic and ridiculous without neglecting how alluring and dangerous white supremacy is.

Furthermore, while this version of Hitler may be the purely imaginary construct of a ten-year-old boy, he’s still Adolf Goddamn Hitler. He still demands unconditional loyalty, he’s still relentlessly xenophobic, and he still glorifies dying and killing for the Third Reich. He may express all of this like a spoiled child desperate for attention, but the underlying terror is still there. The same basic principle is in play when we see preteens dressed up like fascist Boy Scouts, practicing with real blades and lethal weaponry before charging into a literal war zone. The psychotic spectacle of it perfectly rides the line between funny and horrifying.

Speaking of horrifying, let’s take it back to Mel Brooks for a moment. To paraphrase, he once said that a lynching can be funny if — and ONLY if — the intended victim gets away. In Blazing Saddles, the intended victim got away and it was hilarious. In this movie, they don’t and it isn’t. On no less than two occasions, the movie shows us a line of people dangling from nooses. It’s not in the background, there are no cutaways, and there’s nothing else happening in the scene.

The movie deliberately forces us to witness the aftermath of a mass lynching, and the filmmakers are stone-cold somber about it. While the movie has several moments of pure levity (pretty much anytime the characters are dancing, for example), it also has these heavy and heart-wrenching moments in which Jojo is forced to reckon with the ruthlessly violent nature of the country he loves so much. With the barbaric acts of destruction that he may have to enact or even fall victim to, all in the name of patriotism.

The film never lets us forget that actual lives are at stake here, and these kids are being brainwashed to be soldiers. Even in the best case scenario, they’ll be made into ruthless killing machines with no value for life and no inclination to question orders. In the worst case scenario, they’ll be sent to some battlefield a world away and get blown to pieces.

This is the intended destiny of all German children, even those with no inclination for violence. Some people shouldn’t be trusted with firearms, some people can only talk a big game, and some people are fundamentally incapable of cruelty or violence. Some people simply aren’t cut out to be heroes or warriors, and that’s okay. But it’s hard to tell which is which until the chips are down and it’s finally time to kill or be killed. Moreover, how can kindness survive in a culture built from the ground up for violence? Even in the case of the kids who successfully grow up to be soldiers, what the hell could they possibly hope to do when the war is over?

This brings me to another point: The war is winding down. We already know how this is going to end. Our characters are fanatics living in the safety of Berlin, so they’re relatively insulated from current events at the frontlines, but there are still clear signs that Germany is losing the war. They can deny it all they want, but the Allies are coming and the Third Reich will fall. What do you suppose will be left of the characters when that happens? Bad enough that their government will effectively cease to exist, we’re talking about characters who have built their entire identities around Hitler’s dream. In a nation without free speech, living under the oppressive boot of the Gestapo and the SS, where anyone and their families could disappear if any new ideas were whispered, fascism is all these people know. Jojo himself is young enough that he’s never known a world outside the Third Reich.

Finally getting around to our protagonist, it’s made perfectly clear that Jojo’s not a bad kid and he genuinely wants to do the right thing, he’s just a product of his time and place. He’s lonely, he’s small, he’s awkward, and he can’t even tie his own shoes. His father ran out (that’s a long story), his mother is always busy (no way am I getting into that here), virtually nobody his age wants anything to do with him, and everybody is paranoid about getting reported for something or other. Jojo is desperate for approval, for accomplishment, to feel like he can really do something and belong somewhere. And in the absence of all else, he’s got the Third Reich as personified by his imaginary friend Hitler.

Something else that’s interesting to note is how Jojo and his peers were brought up to be utterly terrified of the Jews. The children’s wildest imaginations are indulged, speaking of Jews with wings and scales and horns and all sorts of ridiculous nonsense. Then Jojo meets the actual Jewish girl hiding in his house (No way do I have the time to get into that here.) and this turns out to be totally self-defeating.

None of the adults will believe his tall tales, and Jojo himself is so utterly paralyzed that he’s powerless to confront her. Granted, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) is an attractive teenaged girl maybe five or six years older than Jojo and twice his size, but she doesn’t even need to pin him down. All she has to do is play into his fears, making up whatever monstrous bullshit plays into his spoon-fed nightmares, and he’s wrapped around her finger. The boy embraced fear of The Other, and it only made him a victim.

Waititi’s phenomenal writing and direction aside, I can’t possibly overstate how great this cast is. Every single actor came ready to play, fully and totally committed to this outlandish premise, and that’s probably the most important reason why the premise works as well as it does. Of course, Rebel Wilson never does anything less than full throttle, that’s pretty much her whole schtick, so she fits right in here.

Likewise, Sam Rockwell has keenly developed the art of acting like a preening douchebag without quite losing all audience sympathy (see also: The Way Way Back and Moon), so he’s perfectly in his wheelhouse as Jojo’s de facto teacher. Of course, it helps that he’s got Alfie Allen to work with, capably playing an ambiguously gay sidekick and sounding board for Rockwell’s character. And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Stephen Merchant, here briefly yet gamely demonstrating the banality of evil.

Much as I’ve come to dislike Scarlett Johansson on a personal level in recent years, there’s no denying she’s on fire here. Playing Jojo’s mother, she’s playing an extremely dynamic role and her chemistry with Davis pops right off the screen. She was an absolute joy to watch from start to finish.

Speaking of female leads, Thomasin McKenzie. God damn, is it good to see her on the screen again. I expected great things from this girl after Leave No Trace, and she did not disappoint. In her interplay with Davis, and in her all-important role as an external grounding influence, she totally crushed it.

And then of course we have Roman Griffin Davis, here beautifully anchoring the film. His comic interplay with the other characters is adorable, his pathetic attempts at courage and strength are endearing, and his moments of vulnerability are sincerely heart-wrenching. I haven’t seen such a powerful lead performance in a coming-of-age film since Mud, and I mean that as a huge compliment.

With only 110 minutes of screen time, Jojo Rabbit packs in enough layers to fuel hours and hours of discussion. Portraying fascism in such a childish terms was a stroke of genius, framing Nazis with all the absurdity and psychosis they deserve. By examining white supremacy in terms that can be immediately understood by anyone who was ever a child, and juxtaposing the reality of war and genocide against the immature White Knight pipe dream of wannabe Nazi superheroes, the film helps us to better understand why white supremacy exists and why it must be destroyed.

The cast is extraordinary, the writing and direction are inspired, and it’s mind-blowing to think of all the tightropes this film perfectly navigates. It’s hilarious and intelligent, deeply moving and utterly heartbreaking. This is must-see material, folks. Don’t miss out.

But DO NOT bring your kids. Seriously. My audience learned that the hard way.

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