Nazi Germany and a satirical form of story telling should in no way be able to fit together and work. However, surprisingly, in Jojo Rabbit, they do. And the result is phenomenal. This academy award nominated film is funny, witty, emotional and educational. It is a movie which shows how ugly war whilst barely showing the war at all.
Jojo is a ten year old Nazi fanatic, with Hitler as his imaginary best friend, who lives alone with his mother since his father is off to fight the war and his sister has already passed away. However, he does not act like he is a kid. He joins the camp for Nazi training and talks about war and politics and is already very serious about his aspirations and contribution to society. It is his dream to join Hitler’s personal guard, which comes crashing down as he gets involved in an accident and is left disabled. His mother, as a stark contrast, believes the war is inhumane and she actively, but discretely rebels against Germany by sheltering a Jew girl, Elsa, among other things.
The young Jojo is an innocent child, who whilst worshipping Nazi culture and ideas, is blissfully unaware about their brutality. The movie shows how subtly the kids are brainwashed to join the Nazi cause and “serve their nation”. They are made to believe that all Jews are monsters, literal monsters with horns and magic, and that they should be eliminated and shown no mercy. So, when Jojo finds Elsa hiding in his house, he makes no qualms about exposing her presence and even harming her, if need be. The only thing that stops him, is fear for safety of his mother and himself if the Nazi find out they were sheltering her at their house. Instead, he resolves to settle for the next best alternative – to keep her whereabouts a secret but to write an exposé on the Jews.
This process, however, leads him to the horrid realisation that Jews are actually not that bad. In fact, he starts feeling sorry for Elsa and tries becoming her friend even. As he finally starts warming up to the ideas that the Nazis may not be completely fair or accurate in their versions of truth about the Jews, Jojo finds his mother hanged for her efforts towards supporting the jews and rebelling against the Nazis. This, combined with a first hand view of the war, compels Jojo to question his beliefs and faith in the Nazis as he sets Elsa free once the war is over.
For the purpose of this blog, when I sat down to ponder over what the message of the movie would be, aside from the obvious one mentioned above, I kept coming back to question why they made him have the accident in the beginning that leaves him with a permanent scar on his face and an inability to walk normally. He keeps talking about how ugly he is. I have come to believe that it is because he is so focused on considering himself to be physically unattractive, that he is willing to even talk to Elsa in the first place. What I mean is, he thinks that Jews are hideous creatures who are a bane on the world. They like ugly things. And he is an ugly kid. So it makes sense why he would feel comfortable talking to her. Because his ugliness would make him more attractive to her, the Jew. But the movie also makes sure we see that he is more than that. He is more than his insecurities. It does so by showing us a character that is very highly motivated and determined but also very sensitive and caring. He is not as prejudiced as he himself considers himself to be. He is quick to come off his high horse and accept Elsa in his life. He even becomes protective of her. But what I find most remarkable and inspiring is his ability to handle rejection. To accept that Elsa is too old for him and that his regard for her is, largely, unreciprocated. He accepts that just because she is his life changing experience, that it is not necessary for her to have the same intensity of emotions. And he is just 10 years old.
Another inspiring trait in Jojo, is his ability to handle pain and tragedy, and to come out of it stronger and more intelligent. He could easily have let the war and his family losses turn him into a numb cynic. Instead, he opens himself to grieve and properly deal with his pain and to accept the reality and the ugliness of the war that he spent his life romanticising. He does not let his pain consume his ability to love and care. Instead, he decides to let this painful lesson teach him to be more sensitive to the needs of the others, especially those he loves. By letting Elsa go, he knows he would be all alone, at least till his father joins him, if ever. But he has the emotional intelligence of valuing freedom. That if he actually cares for Elsa, he should set her free. He knows what most people take their lifetime to figure out at the tender age of 10.
Finally, the movie also pin points the importance of raising your kids right. Rosie is a great mother to Jojo. She teaches him to be confident of himself. She also gives him space and complete freedom to pursue his own interests. Even though she is in open rebellion with the Nazi Government, she lets her son pursue his extremist interest of joining Hitler’s guard. She teaches him to embrace his appearance and face the world head on rather than be embarrassed about it and shy away because of it. But most remarkably, she teaches him the strength to face the difficult consequences of life. For instance, when they reach the square where the Nazis showcase the dead bodies for all to see, she forces Jojo to look at the bodies. Perhaps, she attempts to teach her son that there are consequences of each decision. That if he does ultimately wish to pursue his Nazi mindset, he must then be brave enough to also see the pain and hate that they cause to other people. It is her upbringing which gives him the strength to carry on after her death. The strength to become the better person towards Elsa. Her message stays much longer than her life and her good creates a ripple effect with not only Jojo, but also Elsa and Captain Klenzendorf.
So, in a movie based on the time of the second world war, paradoxically, Jojo Rabbit leaves us valuing the importance of questioning whether something is right or wrong, of holding on to the innocence and the morality of a child and of gaining strength to carry on with our lives even in the most desperate times. After all, in the words of Rilke,
Go to the limits of your longing, let everything happen to you – beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.