Childhood is a time of strong, focused passions. We find something to love—cars or Minecraft, Tolkien or BTS—and love it nearly to the point of obsession.
Jojo? He loves Adolph Hitler.
This wasn’t, perhaps, all that unusual in Nazi Germany. Lots of kids were gaga over the German chancellor at the time—in a furor for the Führer, you might say. The Beatles-like reception he received from youth offers ample proof of that. But Jojo takes it a step farther. He would like nothing more than to be Adolf’s BFF. So much so that the fascist dictator has become something like the boy’s inner alter ego: an imaginary friend with a penchant for narrow mustaches, military outfits and frenetic little pep talks.
When Jojo frets about people making fun of him, for instance, Adolph reminds the boy that people made fun of him, too. He still recalls the mockery: “Oh, look at that psycho,” they’d say. He’s going to kill us all!”
Oh, and then there’s the rabid anti-Semitism, of course. But again, most of Germany was enveloped with that. Jojo’s convinced that Jews aren’t people at all, but demons—complete with horns and possibly scales.
But Jojo’s drive to become Hitler’s most trusted confidante takes a turn south when he suffers a mishap with a live grenade during Nazi youth camp. Now, at the tender age of 10, he’s saddled with a half-crippled leg and a network of scars on his face.
Rosie, Jojo’s resourceful mother, isn’t about to let her son sit around and feel sorry for himself. So she introduces the boy to the local Nazi party and has him doing odd jobs around town—delivering mail, gluing up posters, that sort of thing. And while Jojo would much rather be doing something more spectacular for the Nazi cause, it does keep him busy.
But not busy enough, perhaps.
One day, Jojo returns home and thinks that he’s alone in the house—until he hears a weird noise upstairs. He walks up the stairs to explore, into his dead sister’s room and … hey, what’s that weird seam along the wall?
He feels along the seam, pulls out his official Nazi Youth knife out and begins to work at it. He pulls part of the wall out … and finds a secret cupboard behind it. There’s a bed. Books. Drawings. And—a girl.
She’s older than Jojo—maybe 17. And while Jojo doesn’t know who she is, he’s got a pretty good inkling what she is: a Jew. Her mother’s been hiding her for some reason. Wouldn’t the local Nazis love to know about this!
But if Jojo tells, it’s not just this little Jewish girl who’d be in big trouble. His mom might be, too. And maybe even Jojo himself.
And maybe Jojo’s just a little curious, in spite of himself. I mean, here’s a real Jew—right there! What might he learn? Like where, exactly, are her horns?
When Jojo and his mom, Rosie, walk by a half-dozen Jews strung up in the city square by their necks, Jojo tries to turn away. But Rosie makes him look. And when Jojo asks his mother what they did, she answers, “Whatever they could.”
And Rosie’s doing whatever she can. She tells Jojo that she loves her country: “It’s the war I hate.” She hates the Führer’s hatred, too—though she can’t tell her little Nazi son that. So Rosie secretly works against the Nazi regime, most notably by keeping a Jewish girl hidden in her house. She knows that discovery means certain death, but she hides the girl anyway. (It’s suggested that Jojo’s unseen father is also working against the Nazis.)
But she does more than feed and house the girl (who eventually calls herself “Elsa”): She feeds Elsa’s spirit, too. To survive is the key—and Hitler can’t win as long as one Jewish person remains alive. “They didn’t get you yesterday or today,” she says. “Tomorrow must be the same,” she says.
Meanwhile, Rosie does her best to care for her surprisingly sensitive son—loving him as best she can, despite his fascination with Nazism. She knows that the biggest threat to her and Elsa’s safety is Jojo, but she still loves the boy with all her heart and believes that, underneath the uniforms and Nazi salutes, her loving, gracious child still lives.
She’s right, of course. Jojo Rabbit takes the form of a battle for Jojo’s soul—the imaginary Adolph on one side, Elsa and Rosie on the other. And as this internal battle wages in the middle of this very real war, we find that the Germany ruled by the Nazis is not nearly as monotheistic as those on the outside might imagine. We shan’t spoil anything here, but sometimes help comes from some surprising quarters.
Judaism stands at the center of this story, obviously. Nazis manufacture a litany of myths, prejudices and stereotypes regarding the Jews that, at first, Jojo swallows completely without a thought. While some of those lies sadly echo the anti-Semitism we still live with today, others are completely outlandish. One of Jojo’s teachers, for instance, suggests that Jews were the product of a demon-fish union. And at one point, Jojo asks Elsa, quite seriously, where the Jewish queen goes to lay her eggs. One woman says that a Jew forced a man in her life to start drinking and gambling and having “inappropriate relations” with her sister. Other references to Jewish supernatural “powers” are made throughout the film.
Elsa feeds some of these stereotypes for a while (out of scorn for Jojo and in an effort to keep him terrified of her). She even creates new myths, including the suggestion that Jews can read each other’s minds. (She also tells Jojo that Jews don’t get horns ’til they turn 21.) But gradually, Jojo begins to see Elsa as more complex than he initially imagined. They banter over which group has a more prestigious litany of influencers, Germans or Jews, and Elsa closes her argument by naming both Moses and Jesus.
Rosie seems to be Christian. We hear references to the faith and see visual signs of the religion around town, from crosses hanging on walls to the statues of saints standing starkly in a war-torn street. We also hear references to ghosts.
In addition to being taught that a fish had something to do with the breeding of the Jewish people, Jojo believes that Jews cut off the tips of boys’ penises so that rabbis can use them as earplugs. At Nazi Youth Camp, while the boys are off learning how to shoot guns and throw grenades, the girls are to be taught how to care for wounds and, according to the leaders, to bear children for the Fatherland. “I’ve had 18 kids for Germany,” the female leader proudly says, pointing to her full-figured self.
Jojo contemplates love—scorning it at first. But his mother insists that it’s a good thing—the strongest thing imaginable. And that one day, he’ll feel it for himself. Elsa already has felt it: She talks about a boy named Nathan, with whom she hopes to reunite in Paris someday. Jojo writes a letter to Elsa pretending to be Nathan—telling her that he (Nathan) is breaking up with her and is now “tongue kissing” with someone else.
Elsa takes a bath in Rosie’s house while Jojo sits outside a half-open door. (He faces away from the door, though, and the only thing the viewer sees is one of Elsa’s bare arms.) Rosie tells Elsa that she needs to live and find a life full of adventure, including finding a couple of lovers in Morocco.
Two Nazis appear to be engaged in a secret same-sex relationship (or, at least, one fraught with sexual tension). Though we never see them actually engaged in any overtly sexual activity, one acts rather effeminate, while the other dons makeup toward the end of the film. As part of a last-ditch propaganda effort, Nazis tell their people that both Russians and Brits eat babies and have sex with dogs.
[Spoiler Warning] As might be expected, Jojo eventually develops a crush on Elsa. Believing himself ugly because of his scars, he suggests that Jews might have an affinity for ugly things, and shyly asks if Elsa follows suit. When Jojo pouts that he’ll never be kissed, Elsa offers to do the deed. Jojo rejects her offer, in part because it’d be just a pity kiss and it wouldn’t count.
The rabbit in Jojo Rabbit comes quite early—when he and a friend named Yorki are at Nazi youth camp. Noticing Jojo’s aversion to violence, a couple of older boys (in positions of quasi-leadership) give Jojo a rabbit to kill. Instead, he puts the rabbit down and encourages it to run away—but one of the older boys picks it up before it can get away, snaps its neck and throws it into the forest.
During the same camp, Jojo grabs a live grenade from someone and flings it—right into a tree, which it sends it bouncing back at Jojo’s feet. The grenade explodes and sends Jojo to the hospital. (We view the scene from Jojo’s point of view, and see him raise a bloody arm before he loses consciousness.) Evidence of his injuries lingers throughout the rest of the movie.
People die from gunfire and explosions. Dead bodies lie about the streets in the aftermath of a bloody attack. During the Nazi youth camp, a massive scrum features loads of kids wrestling and beating each other, apparently to teach the kids hand-to-hand combat. One child holds a stone overhead while another hollers, “Finish him!” The rock is thrown down out of sight of the camera.
Corpses hang in the town square, and we get a close-up of one’s gray foot. SS officers allude to someone they left “hanging” in their offices.
Elsa keeps stealing the knives that Jojo carries—so frequently that Rosie’s mystified that she can’t seem to find a knife anywhere in the house to use for dinner. Elsa also threatens to cut off Jojo’s “Nazi head.” Fully dressed Nazi youth jump into a pool and thrash about before someone thinks about rescuing them. Someone slaps someone else across the face. Someone’s stabbed in the shoulder with a knife.
After Adolph Hitler kills himself in real life, Jojo’s Adolph returns with a bloody wound to his temple.
One f-word and about six s-words. We also hear “a–,” “d–n” and “h—” a few times. God’s name is misused about 10 times, thrice with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused twice.
Captain Klenzendorf, head of the Nazi youth camp (and later, leader of the town’s Nazi services) drinks constantly—mostly from a flask (which he shares on occasion with his adjunct). Rosie drinks wine. Sometimes it’s in a glass when she’s eating dinner with Jojo; other times it’s straight from the bottle. Jokes are made about being drunk. One or two characters smoke, and Jojo’s Adolph is continually offering the 10-year-old cigarettes.
We hear a couple of references to gambling. Jojo tells a lie.
Rosie, at one point, tries to encourage Jojo to dance. When Jojo says that dancing is pointless, Rosie suggests otherwise. “Life is a gift we must celebrate,” she says. “We must dance to show God we are grateful to be alive.”
A product of New Zealand Director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok), Jojo Rabbit is a strange little movie. Ostensibly a satire, it’s actually weirder and goofier than that moniker suggests. Few movies would dare try to make us love a Nazi wannabe, 10 years old or not—much less one who cavorts with an imaginary Adolph Hitler.
We find shades of Mel Brooks’ infamous (and imaginary) play Springtime for Hitler here, but taken to perhaps even more outlandish extremes. Hearing Jojo enthusiastically shout “Heil Hitler!” to everyone he meets one bright morning is both incredibly disturbing, blending the innocence of youth with one of the darkest regimes in all of the world’s dark history.
The movie reflects this strange tonal schizophrenia perfectly. We are horrified by some of the deaths and sacrifices we see on screen. Moviegoers might be shocked by some of the comedic feints made toward sex and bigotry. But for all its excess and jarring paradoxes, Jojo Rabbit works.
More than that, there’s a beauty that shines through this dramedy’s inherent darkness and dysfunction. Jojo Rabbit tells a story about the power of life and love and heroism of a different kind—one that embraces kindness and goodness above the things that Nazi Germany valued. Or, let’s face it, what our world often values, too.
When Rosie insists that love is the most powerful force of all, Jojo doesn’t believe it. The strongest thing is metal, he tells his mother, followed by explosions, followed by muscle.
But his mother, turns out, was right. Jojo Rabbit tells us so. Shows us so. And in the end, it reminds us that even in the world’s worst moments, and in our worst, too, we should remember to dance. Because we are grateful.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.