By: Kevin McDonnell
NIAGARA UNIVERSITY, N.Y.- In a time where we see a resurgence of white supremacy in American society both in Charlottesville and closer to home in Lewiston, there is no doubt concern for a film that seems to brand itself as a comedy about Nazism. Instead, “Jojo Rabbit” positions itself as a nuanced criticism of the ridiculousness of white supremacy while illustrating to an audience the things that draw people to that malevolent philosophy in the first place.
“Jojo Rabbit” follows the story of Jojo a young boy growing up in Hitler’s Germany. The movie opens with him preparing for a retreat with the Youth Nazi organization. We are soon introduced to Jojo’s imaginary friend Adolf Hitler who hypes him up to make new friends at the retreat. It is here that audiences could quickly find the movie problematic as Jojo’s Hitler is seen as jovial and welcoming, but it is soon realized that that amenable demeanor extends only to those that buy into Hitler’s anti-Semitism. The initial moments of the film are certainly uncomfortable as audiences are left to grapple with a movie that at its start seems like it could serve as a redemption story for one of the cruelest dictators imaginable. However, the movie quickly shifts in tone when Jojo discovers that his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa. As Jojo is drawn closer to Elsa as he seeks to understand her further, he is inevitably drawn farther away from his imaginary friend as the stereotypes Jojo has been led to believe are shattered over time. It is here that Hitler devolves into the monster we are accustomed to seeing as Jojo’s relationship with him shifts throughout the film. It is here that Hitler’s seemingly almost cute jealousy about Jojo’s new relationship with Elsa shifts into outright rage and Jojo is forced to make a choice between his new friend Elsa and Hitler, and he chooses Elsa in a definitive way when he drop kicks Hitler out of his bedroom window.
Amidst the rise of white supremacy in America it is only natural to have a cause for concern with films that are set to feature anti-Semitic rhetoric, but “Jojo Rabbit” utilizes it in a way that seeks to serve a larger purpose. Oftentimes the vilest rhetoric is used to serve a demonstrate the hateful nature of Jojo’s Hitler or in one instance Sam Rockwell, a Nazi officer, uses it to save Jojo’s life as Allied forces round up the remaining Nazi forces to dispose of them. This is not the only moment when Rockwell demonstrates a subversion of Nazi principles it is showcased even earlier when Elsa seeks to pass herself off as Jojo’s sister when the Gestapo arrive unexpectedly. It is here Rockwell questions her about her birthday and accepts a wrong answer to throw the Gestapo off her trail and to spare both her a Jojo. This is one of the key moments of the film for Jojo where the audience sees firsthand how his radicalization is being worn away. It becomes clear to the audience that Jojo’s participation in the Nazi party is the result of a culture that has convinced him to believe all sorts of outlandish ideas about what the party can offer and who the Jewish people truly are. Through his relationship with Elsa he begins to realize that these myths he has been told up until this point are truly just stories set on seeking to dehumanize the Jewish people and distance the German people from them.
One of the key moments of the film is when Jojo discovers his mother hanging from the gallows because she has been found out as one of the members of the resistance. It is here that “Jojo Rabbit” combats the narratives that all the people in Germany had bought into Hitler’s idea of what the state should and could be. Instead, many German citizens and even still members of the Nazi army did not believe in the philosophy espoused by their country’s leader. This article and this film do not seek to fulfill some apologist narrative about the Nazi party, but instead “Jojo Rabbit” in this way showcases its relevance. In a political moment here in the United States where white supremacy is on the rise the vehement racists surely present a problem, but they are further emboldened by members of our government who continue to remain silent. It is here that “Jojo Rabbit” reminds us that apathy in the face of fascism masquerading as nationalism leads to a society of people looking to maintain a new and oppressive status quo under the authority of a strong state. While the United States still sits a ways away from full fledge authoritarianism, it cannot be understated how an immobile citizenry provides the perfect opportunity to scapegoat minority populations for political gain. A democratic republic is only as successful as the sum of its parts and if the majority of its parts are bent on doing nothing the remaining parts are left to their own devices to create a state that represents their own values. It is not enough to exist in democratic society for silence breeds complacency in the face of circumstances that require action. In that aspect, “Jojo Rabbit” reminds us that we must fight for a better world despite increasing impediments because it is those who stay silent that end up the voiceless.