In Case I Die: Jojo Rabbit

Hey buddy,

Okay. Here we are. 2028. The world hasn’t ended and there’s enough energy infrastructure left to make it the case that it’s possible to watch movies. 

Which brings me around to an important question: Have you watched Jojo Rabbit yet? You have to. This letter is going to ruin the whole thing, because the part of this movie that I most want to talk about is the final scene, and the final scene works way better if you don’t know what’s going to happen. 

Okay. Great. You watched it. It’s a story about a little boy, his mom, his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler, and a young Jewish woman set in Nazi Germany as the allies liberate Western Europe. If you haven’t learned about World War II, and Nazism in particular, then there is something very, very wrong with K-12 education, and you are probably living under theocratic fascism (totes possible). 

With a quick nod to your dad, who definitely knows a great deal more about World War II than I, the reason why you need to know about all of this is because the stakes of human life on planet earth can be very, very high. Genocidally high.

It should be hard to write a comedy about, well, any of this. But then, there are a lot of things in this world that aren’t funny but pretty much demand that you retain a capacity to laugh. One of the signposts of wisdom is figuring out how to navigate those tensions. 

One of the things that make Jojo Rabbit work as a comedy is Taika Waititi’s Hitler. I don’t know if anyone else could pull off clownish Adolf. If you’re trying to figure out how to use your body to tell jokes, pay attention to his performance. It’s all in the angles. Figure out how to align your hips, shoulders and head correctly and you’ll have figured out about 25% of the craft of being funny. 

Taika Hitler and Jojo are the first characters we meet in the film, and it drives home the absurdity of the situation. Little Jojo believes in National Socialism, is completely devoted to the Third Reich, and relies on a wise and supportive Adolf Hitler to navigate the world, and I have to give it to Taika Hitler: He has a moment of profound wisdom he shares with Jojo, which leads Jojo to blow himself up with a grenade, but it’s still a solid insight: He talks about the virtue of rabbits.

I agree. Rabbits are admirable. They’re survivors. There’s a Clash song (ably covered by Greg Macpherson) that speaks to this. 

Taika Hitler’s celebration of rabbits primes us to appreciate Jojo’s greatest virtue, the thing that prevents him from being a villain: He’s beneath most people’s notice. They don’t take him seriously. 

As the story progresses, Jojo meets Elsa, the Jewish girl that his mother is hiding in a crawlspace in their house. I was very relieved that Elsa didn’t play wet-nurse to Jojo. She clearly doesn’t like him for much of the film, and she shouldn’t. He’s a brainwashed little toadie and she challenges his beliefs in a confrontational way. It would have been a toxic cliche for her to coddle him away from Nazism, and so the story moves along on the back of this tension. Jojo is always one screw-up away from being a monster. 

But Jojo and Elsa do come to care for one another. For Jojo it would be easy to boil it down to ‘first love’, but  it’s more than that. I think she gives him a world that is complicated, and following his mother’s execution, a way to love her that wouldn’t have existed were he to maintain his faith in the German war machine. 

As for Elsa, I think Jojo rescues her from hopelessness. She has every reason to hate the world, but this bumbling little fascist ends up being just a child, and a child who ultimately needs what she has to give, which is a complete lack of respect for his conformity. 

And this is the heart of the film: Jojo asks Elsa what she’ll do when the Germans are defeated and she says, “I’ll dance”. He’s a witness to this statement, and it’s not a little statement. We talk about what we’re going to do on important occasions all the time, and more often than not we don’t even remember making these oaths. No one will ever hold us accountable to them. But the end of Nazi power is not a graduation, or a retirement, or a wedding or a funeral. It means a great deal more than that. 

And so, when the Allies arrive, Jojo and Elsa have survived, but have few reasons to celebrate. They are free in a world in which they have lost everything. They are orphans in a ruined country facing an unknowable future. They look into each other’s eyes, utterly traumatized, probably hopeless, and what do they do? 

The obvious thing. The thing that Elsa swore to do. They dance

I hope that you can promise yourself that you will dance when you survive hardship, and I hope that there are people in your life who look you in the eye, in the middle of bombed out buildings, and ask, “What do we do now?” I hope you know the answer to that question. 

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