Basically: Jojo Rabbit is the anti-hate satire the world needs right now.
Jojo Betzler isn’t the Nazi he’s so keen to be, he’s just a 10-year-old boy who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club. His nationalist ideals and anti-Semitic leanings are challenged when Jojo finds that his mother is harboring an enemy of the Nazi state, a young Jewish girl. The thing about an anti-hate satire is that to effectively be “anti-hate” the film has got to make you feel the opposite of hate—LOVE—and Jojo Rabbit does.
Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a lonely little boy who needs a father figure and to feel a part of something. His imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler. Not the Adolf Hitler but the kind of imaginary friend a little boy missing his father figure would dream up, someone who encourages him and makes everything ok. Had Griffin Davis not been such a vulnerable Jojo it would have been hard to love a character who shouts “Heil Hitler” as his pump up chant before leaving the house but Jojo is loveable. His “second best friend” Yorki (Archie Yates) is an equally sweet and vulnerable little darling. They are the least threatening Nazis you’re ever going to come across, mostly because they don’t actually believe the hateful rhetoric that goes along with Hitler. They just want to be part of a club.
After Jojo and Yorki spend an explosive weekend at a Hitler Youth camp, Jojo returns home only to learn that his mother, Rosie Betzler (Scarlett Johansson), is hiding a jew in their attic. Rosie, too, is one of the characters to which the film ascribes love to teach a lesson about hate. With her sweet taunting of her son to drag him out of his shell, her dancing, and the method by which she eschews food in favor of wine, she is a character you love.
Only after the fact is it noticeable that every sweet scene is strategically placed to coax the audience into lowering their guard. Just like the wicked prey on the weak, so does this satire. When you least expect it, when your heart is the softest, the horrific realities of WWII are thrust in your face. Other films with the same subject matter are approached with tenuous distance because the audience is aware that the unthinkable will happen. Not so with Jojo Rabbit, from the German renditions of Beatles songs and the Wes Anderson look there’s not a lot of hints that some heavy truths will come your way—and they’re going to hit hard.
Johansson’s Rosie is a deep and relatable mother who loves her son even if she doesn’t share his blind fanaticism. Sam Rockwell is brilliant as a disgraced Nazi officer who clearly has his own reasons for any of his seeming kindness. This is one of the ways that writer/director Taika Waititi shines. Rockwell’s character isn’t a redeemable Nazi, he’s just human. Oftentimes the villains are untouchably inhuman or apologetically portrayed but not in Jojo Rabbit. Even if the bad guys are laughable at times they are still the bad guys. Waititi’s Hitler is perfect because he’s not playing the actual man. Imaginary Hitler instills confidence in Jojo who is a representation of the German national identity during the rise and power of the Third Reich. Satiric perfection. Too much of the movie relates to current political problems at home and abroad but those reflections will have to wait for another time.
In the end: Don’t wait to see Jojo Rabbit, just make sure that when you do, you bring tissues.