There is no shortage of films about resistance to repressive regimes during and slightly after the Second World War: Never Look Away, Alone in Berlin, The Book Thief: Some of them like, “The Death of Stalin” The Grand Budapest Hotel: are extremely funny.
Jojo Rabbit isn’t unique in making Hitler or Stalin into a comedy character.
But what is unique is the way Taika Waititi who wrote and directed the film does it. The main character Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, (played by Roman Griffin Davis) has an imaginary friend.
Many children have imaginary friends and Jojo is no exception. What is exceptional is that his friend should be Adolf Hitler.
This brings Hitler down to the level of a ten year-old child. And this is how Waititi makes Jojo Rabbit work. As Jojo’s special friend, Adolf must explain National Socialism to a 10-year-old , stripping away the empty rhetoric of the mass rallies.
By using this device Waititi enables Jojo to negotiate the terrors of the Hitler Youth and, in particular, the incident where he got his nickname, Jojo Rabbit.
The story of Jojo and his relationship with Yorki is one of main narrative threads of the film. It’s the naïve simplicity and basic humanity of these two children that allows them to survive the horrors of the Nazi system.
But for other characters in the film, Rosie Betzler, Jojo’s single mother played by Scarlett Johansson, Captain Klenzendorf, an Army officer who runs a Hitler Youth camp, played by Sam Rockwell, humanity and goodness is not enough and things end badly for them.
When we first meet Jojo, Adolf is preparing him for his first weekend with the Hitler Youth. He is dressed in his uniform and is desperately keen to fit in.
Jojo is looking at himself in the mirror]
Jojo: Jojo Betzler. Ten years-old. Today, you join the ranks of the Jungvolk, in a very special training weekend. It’s going to be intense. Today, you become a man.
We suspect that Adolf’s gung-ho instructions are going to be of little help either. And so it proves. The camp proves to be a total disaster, with Jojo blowing himself up with a grenade in an attempt to demonstrate his bravery.
It’s an accident which, ironically, serves to be his salvation. He is declared unfit to be a soldier and is tossed out of the Hitler Youth while his bespectacled friend Yorki (played by Archie Yates) is deemed fit for military service.
Part of the gentle humour of this film is the depiction of way the Nazi system treats these two misfits. JoJo and Yorki both desperately want to fit into a system in which they clearly have no place. When they meet as the allies closing on the tone,When they meet as the allies closing on their town, Jojo admires Yorki uniform
Jojo: It’s like paper.
Yorki: Hm, that’s what I thought at first too, but it’s “paper like”. It’s the lightest material invented by a top scientist.
Jojo: Well, I’m impressed.
Later we see Jojo watching members of the Hitler Youth carrying grenades to defend the town against the advancing Russians tanks.
When it’s all over, and Jojo, who has very wisely being hiding in the cellar of a house, meets Yorki who has somehow managed to survive, Yorki says him with devastating childlike simplicity, “I’m going home to my mum, I think I need a cuddle.”
It is a fitting epitaph for the Hitler Youth.
More complex, both psychologically and emotionally, is the relationship between Jojo and Elsa Korr, (played by Thomasin McKenzie) a teenage Jewish girl who is being sheltered by Jojo’s mother.
When Jojo finds out, he is horrified, as is Adolf. As a good Nazi, Joj should denounce his mother, which he cannot possibly do. JoJo and Elsa strike a deal. In return for not turning her in to the authorities, Elsa agrees to help Jojo write a book about Jews which he does to impress Captain Klenzendorf.
Jojo’s book is full of Nazis stereotypes but it serves to deflect the attention of the local Nazis who come to search Jojo’s mother’s house.
The tense scene is full of black humour when Elsa emerges to pose as Jojo’s dead sister and the German Captain Klenzendorf covers for her when she gets the dead’s girl’s birth date wrong.
But she knows her time is running out and the Nazis will be back. However, time and the Allies are on her side.
While the book is being written, JoJo reads letters to Elsa from her boyfriend Nathan. In the first one, he writes that Nathan has found another girlfriend and wishes to break up. Jojo hears Elsa crying and quickly reads another letter saying that Nathan has changed his mind.
Jojo: Um, don’t open the door, but I actually forgot, there’s a second letter.
[reads from his fake letter]
Jojo: “Dear, Elsa, I just wanted to let you know that I don’t want to breakup with you now. I changed my mind, because I don’t want you to kill yourself over me. ….Thank God you’re being taken care of by that kid, who I must say, is a remarkable young man beyond his years, and great too. Yours, Nathan.”
When the Allies arrive, Nathan writes another letter
[Jojo reads another letter he’s written from Nathan to Elsa]
Elsa: He’s dead.
Elsa: Nathan. He died the first year. Tuberculosis.
Jojo: [awkwardly] Well, that’s weird.
[referring to the letters]
Jojo: He wrote these.
In a desperate attempt to keep Elsa, Jojo lies about who has won the war. But when they step outside, Elsa realises that Germany has not won the war and she is free.
Jojo: Look, me and fake Nathan have found a way for you to escape. Maybe you can trust a younger brother?
Jojo: Okay then. Get your things together. We’re leaving.
looking at himself in the mirror]
Jojo: Jojo Betzler. Ten and a half years-old. Today, just do what you can.