Jojo Rabbit is a small, independent movie by a filmmaker I had never heard of before, Taika Waititi, and his name should tip you off that this is going to be something different. Taika Waititi is a New Zealand director, actor, and comedian whose father is Maori, whose mother is half Ashkenazi Jew and half Irish, and his chief claim to fame (so far) is that he was nominated for an Academy Award back in 2004 for a short I’ve never heard of. Waititi describes himself as a Polynesian Jew.
Let’s review the bidding: a self-described Polynesian Jew has made a movie about an indoctrinated anti-Semitic little boy in the Hitler Jugend whose imaginary playmate/hero is Adolph Hitler, a movie that has been both lauded and panned by critics who have variously described it as a coming of age story, a darkly comedic fantasy, a comedy-drama, an anti-hate satire, and a goofy fantasy about hate.
Well, yes, sort of. I’ll go with the last one. It is goofy, but it is most emphatically not about hate. Rather, it is a fantasy that shows hate in order to be a completely unique, very funny, very moving film about hate’s opposite in all its many manifestations: romantic love, maternal love, filial love, platonic love, fraternal love, selfless love. As Jojo Rabbit’s mother (Scarlett Johansson) says, “Love is the strongest thing in the world.”
Jojo Rabbit is goofy. It is also magical, heartbreaking, hilarious, unforgettable, and way over-the-top. Some people and some critics have objected that it makes light of the Nazis by portraying them as bumbling buffoons. You bet your bippy, baby. It makes very light of them indeed for the same reason that Mel Brooks did in The Producers: namely (to paraphrase Brooks) if you can bring Hitler down with comedy, he stands no chance. Brooks also famously said, “political correctness is the death of comedy,” so if you are one of the preposterously politically correct who seem so prevalent these days and who are offended by practically everything, you will see no comedy in Jojo Rabbit. In fact, you will probably be offended by it. I certainly hope so.
The basics of the plot can be summarized by saying it’s a movie about a ten-year old boy during the final days of the Nazi Reich. Jojo has swallowed the Nazi party line so completely and devoutly he is already in the Hitler Jugend where he and other little boys are being trained to kill in defense of the Fatherland. Yes, yes, they are reassured der Führer’s glorious armies are irresistible and invariably triumphant, but, well, just in case, you understand… Unfortunately, Jojo does not possess the warrior’s spirit and is unwilling to prove his murderous loyalty by killing a rabbit. His courageous refusal is labeled cowardice, and urged on by the imaginary Adolph (a fount of spectacularly bad advice and bad ideas) to redeem himself, Jojo snatches a live grenade out of the instructor’s hand and throws it. It bounces off a tree trunk and lands at his feet, leaving him with a scarred face and bad leg. No longer Hitler Jugend material.
To compound his troubles, Jojo discovers his mother is hiding a despised Jew in their house. She happens to be a very beautiful teenaged girl, but Jojo believes, knows, all Jews are monsters, and he only refrains from telling the authorities about her when the beautiful monster points out his mother will be immediately executed for saving a Jew.
Just that much of the plot must already sound over the top and almost unbelievable, and certainly Taika Waititi emphasizes the ludicrousness with his buffoonish Hitler (played by Waititi) and the equally buffoonish youth camp leader Captain Klenzendorf (brilliantly played by Sam Rockwell), not to mention the utter ineptitude of the other little ten-year old boys, in particular Jojo’s only friend, the fat, clumsy, incomparably charming Yorki (played by Archie Yates). But is it really unbelievable?
Factually, no. Boys as young as ten were allowed to be in the Hitler Jugend and were taught the rudiments of military warfare. My recently deceased and greatly missed friend, the great German dog breeder and trainer, Bodo Winterhelt, was marched off to the Russian front at the ripe old age of sixteen. He marched back as an officer at eighteen, holding his intestines in his hands, to find out he had gone from being the heir to one of the greatest fortunes in Germany, to not even owning the clothes he stood up in, those clothes being a German army uniform.
Could a boy that young already be indoctrinated? Consider the following:
One year, Bodo and I took all our dogs and went on a hunting odyssey to South Dakota, Nebraska, and back to South Dakota. On the road late one night, we were talking about the war, his experiences before, during, and after, and its affect on him and his family. I was driving, and when Bodo drifted into silence, I assumed he had fallen asleep. A few moments later he startled me by saying, “They should never have hung those generals.”
“They should never have hung those generals at Nuremberg.”
“What do you mean?”
“They were soldiers. It was a war. In a war soldiers kill people. It is what they are supposed to do. They should never have hung the generals. They should have hung the goddamned teachers.”
“What? What teachers?”
“All our goddamned teachers. It was the teachers who said to us, ‘God is dead. Hitler is god. Hate the Jews.’ Over and over they said this to us and when you are a child you believe what grownups tell you. They told that to us over and over because they were afraid and didn’t want to lose their jobs. They should have hung the goddamned teachers.”
And the sadness in his voice at that moment almost broke my heart. So yes, even small children can become indoctrinated.
And many Germans, like Jojo’s mother, tried to save Jews whenever they could.
Bodo’s father loathed Hitler and the Nazi Party. But Bodo’s father was so knowledgeable about antiques that Hitler put him in charge of all antiquities in Germany, the man who decided which buildings might be torn down and which had historical value, that sort of thing. One day he rescued a Jew who was being beaten in the Grosser Tiergarten in Berlin. He took the injured man back home with him, sent for his wife, and hid both in the attic of his house until he could smuggle them out of the country. Bodo told me he used to watch the Jewish couple walk in his father’s garden by moonlight, the only time it was safe for them to emerge from the attic. And I wonder now if Bodo was as conflicted as Jojo, hearing one message from his teachers, and seeing another example from his father.
Jojo’s curiosity about the beautiful hidden monster is greater than his fear and repugnance and he gradually comes to know her and finally to need her for solace when tragedy strikes. No spoilers here, but that, of course, is the essence of the movie, that love is the strongest thing in the world.