By Lisa Woolfson
Editor’s Note: Movie spoilers included below.
When my friends first asked me if I wanted to see “JoJo Rabbit,” I was hesitant. I usually stay away from Holocaust related media. I’ve learned enough about the real thing.
There are only two reasons I even considered watching this movie: Taika Waititi and Scarlet Johansson. The fact that Waititi’s mother is Jewish and that Johansson is Jewish made me feel much better about this movie being created, let alone watching it. Knowing that Jews were creating and acting in a parody of a version of the Holocaust told me that they would err on the side of caution and would do what they could to respect our ancestors and our history.
With this knowledge, and hearing that the movie was really funny, I decided to at least give the trailer a shot.
“JoJo Rabbit” is not as advertised. It looks like a fun comedy about a Nazi summer camp for little kids with a cartoonish version of Hitler. It was also called a “feel good” movie by critics, so I decided to take the leap and see the movie. The movie is just like the trailer, for the first thirty minutes. If you came into this movie worried about it trivializing the Holocaust, rest assured it does not do that. If you are worried about being triggered, well that’s another issue.
The movie is about a 10-year-old during the 1940s nicknamed JoJo who is being radicalized by the Nazi party. His mother (Scarlet Johansson) is a Nazi too — but in actuality, she’s part of the resistance and is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa in the walls of her bedroom. Scarlet Johansson is absolutely incredible in this role and electrifies every scene she is in. But JoJo and Elsa’s relationship is what really propels the movie and makes JoJo start to question everything he’s learning from the Nazis.
JoJo is going to a Nazi version of summer camp and is being brainwashed into believing Jews are horrible and less than people and that Aryans are the superior race.
One of the standouts in the movie is Waititi. He plays a brilliant, over-the-top kooky, dare I say likeable Hitler.
Now before you send an angry letter to my editor, just hear me out. Waititi is not actually playing Hitler but instead a little boy’s imaginary friend who happens to be Hitler.
When a Nazi walks into little JoJo’s room and sees all the swastikas and pictures of Hitler on the walls he says “I wish more of our young boys had your blind fanaticism.” Well, that’s exactly what this version of Hitler accomplishes.
The only way JoJo can justify all of these terrible thoughts and ideas to his childish ten year old mind, especially with a mother who is less than on board with the situation, is to convince himself that the leader at the helm must be an incredibly likable man.
So this lonely boy creates a childlike version of Hitler in his mind who likes to dance and make jokes and eat unicorn meat. This imaginary version of Hitler makes all of the horrible things JoJo’s learning about seem not so horrible after all. This Hitler encourages him to act cruelly, to be prejudiced and to do what Nazis tell him to do without questioning it too much. This invisible friend makes the world of fascism and genocide seem more comical and acceptable to JoJo.
However, life has a way of showing us the things we try our hardest to blind ourselves from and this movie is no exception. JoJo has an easy time hating Jews, this faraway distant concept he can’t even put his finger on. Until he meets one in the walls in his mother’s bedroom and realizes that they’re actually people.
As JoJo and Elsa develop a relationship, and he learns that she is a real person with thoughts and feelings and hopes just like him, JoJo’s radicalizing begins to unravel.
As time went on, I was worried about how far the movie might go in terms of killing off characters and such and wondered how much time was left. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it — I was, and thoroughly. But because this wasn’t what I signed up for. The movie ventured into dark places, but it didn’t go too far.
This movie toed the line at offensiveness but never once crossed it. It had that mix of comedy and realism that the movie needed to not trivialize the Holocaust but still be enjoyable.
My issue with movies like The Producers (I only saw the 2005 remake) is that yes, they make fun of Hitler, but they also ignore the seriousness of the context from which he comes. That, to me, comes off as rude and insensitive to Jews, and especially Holocaust survivors and everything they went through. So even though I came to the theater hoping for just comedy, I’m glad there was seriousness after all.
It’s no coincidence that this movie is coming out now. Lately, partly as a result of the political climate in this country and partly a result of dangerously unchecked algorithms, young white boys are being radicalized online. They go on YouTube and are shown right-wing propaganda to watch such as racist and anti-Semitic videos. There is a reason Jews are saying “Never Again is Now.” This movie makes fun of Nazis, yes, but it also is a warning for our current society. Fascism is made possible by young brainwashed, radicalized young men. “JoJo Rabbit” is a distorted look at our past, but it also could be a glance into our future if we aren’t careful.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of the “Jojo Rabbit” Facebook page.
Lisa Woolfson is a senior journalism and government and politics major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.