The marketing for Jojo Rabbit, fearing any misconstruing of a film set in Nazi Germany, consistently made sure that we know that it is “An anti-hate satire.” That tagline is half right. The movie couldn’t be mistaken for endorsing hate, but it is not a satire. It is in fact consistently sincere, if laced with wry humor, fully in keeping with the rest of writer-director Taika Waititi’s filmography. That it aims for such a whimsical tone within the context of Nazism may make it nonetheless off-putting for some, but considering that subject matter, it’s a surprisingly tame movie. I was left wondering what it would be like if it followed through on any satirical possibility.
After all, the film has a strong hook to start out with. The title character, Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), is a devoted Deutsches Jungvolk member whose “best friend” is an imaginary version of Hitler (Waititi). There’s tremendous potential there for a humorous portrait of fanaticism, of the personal side of fascism as it hits its end-state death drive. We are assured early on, though, that Jojo is a sweet boy. He gets his titular nickname because he’s unable to kill a bunny as commanded at scouting camp. An attempt to prove his mettle with a grenade instead ends up disabling him, voiding any possibility of him being conscripted as a child soldier. Jojo thus spends his days in solitude, until he discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), a secret anti-Nazi, has hidden a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in their crawlspace. Getting to know her upends Jojo’s worldview, and he comes to question his indoctrination.
All that is wholesome enough, but interrogating the underlying logic leaves the film looking quite strange, and not because of any “quirky” humor about a Hitler figment acting goofy with a young boy. Why, precisely, do so many films about “fighting hate” decide that the best way to do this is to redeem or soften racists? We see this in everything from Green Book (which was rewarded with multiple Oscars) to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (also fêted) to Where Hands Touch (which was thankfully rewarded with nothing but delayed disdain) to The Best of Enemies (which no one really cared about at all, though it is notably the third film mentioned in this article to star Sam Rockwell, man wyd). Jojo comes to understand the error of his ways through getting to know Elsa as a human and unlearning the ideas he’s been taught about Jews. This is good for warming hearts but a completely irrelevant framework for reality; we can’t pair up every racist with a minority to teach them the error of their ways. It also means the film is technically starting from the same premise that racists are working on — that marginalized people have to work to prove their humanity.
It shouldn’t be a spoiler (but fair warning here), given that the film is set during the end of World War II, its characters find their Aryan utopia collapsing around them by the climax. Since they’ve been put forth as “adorable” versions of Nazis, their eventual slaughter at Allied hands is strangely similar to what you might expect to see in a legit Nazi film, so sympathetically do they come off. This only fueled my projections of what an actual satirical handling of this material would look like. What if Jojo’s faith never wavered? If he turned in his mother immediately upon discovering the Jew in their attic? If the film just kept showing him doing increasingly awful things with a smile on his face? What if it ended with him gleefully charging Red Army soldiers with his best pal Hitler at his side? It would be deeply disturbing; only I and around a dozen other dark-minded Jews would find any humor in it, and it would be a perfectly rendered picture of what the fascist mindset truly looks like. That doesn’t win you Oscars or People’s Choice Awards at film festivals, though.
Jojo Rabbit opens in theaters October 18.