Jojo Rabbit begins with a youthful Nazi chorus and ends with the German language version of David Bowie’s “We Can Be Heroes.” In between these two anthems lies a charming but imperfect film that attempts to portray how we can rise above bigotry. Unfortunately, the film repeatedly shows – but fails to acknowledge – that the price for the redemption of our young Aryan protagonist is often the suffering of everyone else along the way.
In this new film by multi-talented New Zealand writer-director-actor Taiki Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), we meet the titular 10-year old Jojo as he dresses in his finest swastika-emblazoned regalia and heads out for his first day of Nazi training. Throughout the film, Jojo is accompanied by his imaginary best friend: an often paternal and encouraging Adolf Hitler, portrayed by Waititi himself. In real life, Waititi is Jewish, a fact that – if known – adds a forgiving and subversive tone to Adolf’s comedic antics. This is not the Hitler of history, but instead the type of heroic and guiding figure that a fatherless child might invent. As Jojo proceeds through the events of the movie, we see how his relationship with Adolf becomes as conflicted as the young boy’s changing outlook.
Waititi has encouraged moviegoers to attend Jojo Rabbit knowing as little as possible about the plot, so I will be careful not to spoil any key details. Suffice it to say that events, accidents, incidents, secrets, and changing relationships serve as a catalyst for Jojo to re-examine his Nazism, nationalism, and hatred. This journey is musical, comical, and beautifully shot. At every turn, Waititi reminds you of his mastery of multiple genres, drawing on the tropes and techniques of horror, adventure, drama, and comedy while only rarely betraying a consistent tone throughout the film.
Still, audience members may find themselves left flat by the overall message. Jojo’s story is, as advertised, a redemption tale. If that tale seemed applicable to modern times or average lives, we might be left with a sense of hope during an era of xenophobia and increasing nationalism. Unfortunately, Jojo’s redemption includes consistent violence and hatred, sometimes committed by Jojo himself. Not only are threats and hate speech hurled by our protagonist, but Jojo’s journey has dire costs for many marginalized people that help him along the way. This suffering might be poignant if the film acknowledged the weight or consequences of Jojo’s actions, but we are not truly asked to consider the patience, pain, and suffering taking place. In what has become a frustratingly common trope in stories like these, minorities are asked to endure slurs, threats, and violence by our protagonist without giving up on him.
This is not the film’s only clumsiness. Several of the comedic scenes fail to connect, some of the antics are played too broadly, and shortly after a character is revealed to be gay and heroic, we find that same character suddenly reduced to a colorful, feather-festooned, mascara-ed gay stereotype from a forgotten era. At each turn, we find ourselves working to forgive the shortcomings in front of us, if for no other reason than Waititi’s skill and earnestness.
As mentioned, the closing credits fall to the chords of David Bowie’s “We Could Be Heroes.” The film leaves unclear whether the choice to feature the song was an intentional play on Bowie’s flirtation with a Nazi obsession during his Thin White Duke phase. In either case, there is some poetry in the overlap between Bowie and Jojo’s story. Both found themselves compelled by the allure of fascism and Nazi imagery, but neither paid any longterm consequences for their actions. Instead, most audiences chose to celebrate the moral growth of the talented and charming, even if they leave suffering in their wake. Both are given the chance to be heroes, even if those around them have to become victims. Both jokes play out the same way, but audiences will have to decide whether they are still willing to laugh along.