The opening scene of Jojo Rabbit shows a 10-year-old boy (Jojo, played by Roman Griffin Davis) swearing allegiance to Hitler and practicing “Heil Hitler!” salutes. Less than two hours later, the film ends with a line from a Rilke poem: “No feeling is final.”
That line is a key to understanding this World War II satire/comedy (you heard that right, it’s a PG-13 comedy about Hilter and Nazis), which threads a fine needle between tasteful and insensitive. The audacious film is about a lot of things, including the tragedy of war destroying childhood innocence. But ultimately Jojo is a film about change: the possibility and process of it; how it happens; why it’s compelling to watch.
The film, directed by Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok), is the story of Jojo’s transformation from an enthusiastic Nazi youth whose invisible best friend is Hilter himself (played by Waititi), to a boy who sees through Nazism’s propaganda and recognizes its evil.
How does he get there? What is the film’s answer for how an indoctrinated, hate-filled young boy might grow and change for the better, recognizing his error? It’s an urgent question in our internet age—where all manner of toxic ideology, propaganda, and deadly hate often flourish. But does Jojo offer a sufficient answer?
Power of Proximity
The primary catalyst for Jojo’s change is relationships: tangible, proximate, in-person, loving human relationships. When we are alone in our heads—or so desperate for community that we’ll even join a brigade of fascist youth to simply belong—fear and hate will naturally fester. This is the case for Jojo early in the film; he’s susceptible to the allure of Nazism in part because he’s lonely. He’s the son of an absentee father (whom we never see in the film), and his mother (Scarlett Johansson)—though loving when she’s around—is often away. Smaller and clumsier than some other boys his age, Jojo is also bullied. It all adds up to a hunger for meaning and empowering purpose, which the war and Nazism tragically provides.
Jojo at first buys into Nazi ideology with little reservation, including its demonic rhetoric about Jews. He and his friend Yorki (the scene-stealing Archie Yates) discuss what they would do if they spotted a Jew, but they admit to not knowing what they look like. Despite hearing all sorts of wild tales about Jews (e.g., they have horns and smell of Brussels sprouts), the boys have never met one. Jews are thus easily imagined as monsters and menaces—as fanciful as the “friendly Hitler” of Jojo’s imagination. Without real, proximate relationships, our imaginations about people run amok, and we naturally think the worst of them.
Without real, proximate relationships, our imaginations about people run amok, and we naturally think the worst of them.
But early in the film, Jojo meets a Jew. His own mother, it turns out, is an anti-Nazi fighter in the German resistance, and she’s been hiding a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in an attic. When Jojo first meets Elsa, he’s horrified and afraid of her, seeing her as a thing more than a human being. But that quickly changes. They get to know each other and become friends. Jojo’s propaganda-driven perceptions of Jews change. Elsa is not a monster. She’s a young person—lonely and fearful and longing for love. Just like Jojo.
His heart begins to soften, and his hate is largely dismantled. Rather than living in an abstract, embattled space where enemies are unknown and faceless, Jojo cultivates an in-person relationship that changes him. It’s a valuable reminder for our world today, prone as we are to dehumanizing each other in disembodied, impersonal digital spaces. Proximity has a funny knack for destroying prejudice.
But is proximity enough? If enough Nazis and Jews had known each other, lived in each other’s houses, been friends, could the Holocaust have been prevented? If enough Democrats and Republicans golfed together, could partisan political stalemate be broken? If every race and ethnic group in America were represented in every neighborhood, would racism be eradicated?
Probably not. Proximate relationships are critically important for learning how to treat each other as humans rather than monsters. But it’s only part of our growth. Most Germans did not protect their Jewish friends and neighbors. Changes in our external social environment are one thing; we also need radical change in our internal spiritual state. One or two nice friends is not enough to heal people who are “dead in the trespasses and sins” and “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1, 3).
Changes in our external social environment are one thing; we also need radical change in our internal spiritual state.
Jojo Rabbit doesn’t claim relationships to be the one “silver bullet” either, and by film’s end Jojo’s prejudiced heart still has more growing to do. But the film does feel somewhat idealistic at times, subtly promoting a sort of “kumbaya” gospel in which John Lennon’s “Imagine” world—no countries, nothing to kill or die for, no religion too—is the pathway to peace. In addition to being too simple as a solution for sin, this approach runs the risk of relativizing truth by making diversity/empathy absolute values: if you just get to know someone, you’ll understand where they’re coming from, and what appears “wrong” or scary about them will be demystified. The film hints in this direction with a sympathetic gay Nazi character (Sam Rockwell) whose presence checks an unnecessary intersectionality box.
What this “imagine” vision misses is our individual culpability and need for spiritual regeneration—a supernatural intervention to remove our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). Maybe God will initiate this by putting people into our lives who destroy our prejudices (as Elsa does for Jojo). Or maybe he will let us get to the lonely end of our materialistic, hedonistic, self-centered rope. There are a million methods God uses to catalyze our change. The point is, God initiates true, lasting, radical change. And it always includes our ownership of sin and repentance.
For all its insights and laudable efforts to show the stupidity of hate, Jojo Rabbit at times falls into the same trap Joker does. Both films frame bad behavior around situational factors to such an extent that they nearly absolve their central characters of any guilt. Are Jojo and Arthur Fleck powerless victims, on dark paths because of external circumstances? That these films open the door for such an explanation shows how much today’s world struggles to acknowledge the reality of original sin.
Stories of change like Jojo Rabbit may be incomplete, but they are still compelling to watch because they touch on a universal need—and desire. It isn’t just Hitler Youth white supremacists who need a radical, night-and-day change. We all do, and we know it.