[Spoilers for Jojo Rabbit]
Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit does the one thing you shouldn’t do when depicting Nazis: make them sympathetic. On the surface this might seem like a deplorable artistic choice – the idea that a Nazi, the universal villain, is somehow worthy of understanding and sympathy. What Jojo Rabbit does though, is the precarious balancing act of delineating between the ideology and the individual.
In Jojo Rabbit, as in real life, there is no doubt whatsoever that the Nazi ideology is heinous and morally grotesque. This statement alone is uncontroversial, but Jojo Rabbit shows us this by perceiving this ideology through the eyes of a child. The figurative vilification and demonization of Jews is taken at face value by our protagonist Jojo, and he believes Jews to be literal monsters. Like the antisemitism of the Nazis, Jojo’s perception of Jews is both absurd and self-contradictory. Similarly, like the actual Hitler, Jojo’s Hitler is a farcical daddy figure for a fragile consciousness.
Yet Jojo, like many of the characters in the film, is not undeserving of sympathy and understanding despite their identification with and adherence to the Nazi regime. Jojo is a child – his naivety is a given and to be excused. His mother is a lone individual – her means of rebellion have to be personal and private. Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf is a disgraced soldier, longing for the glory of battle. He is unconcerned with the underlying ideology of the Nazis, evidenced by his small acts of disobedience helping Jojo evade arrest and capture. For him, the Nazis are a means to glory. This does not reduce his culpability for the crimes of the regime (he is implied to be shot as the allies roll into town), but this understanding of his underlying motivations is paramount to our understanding of the allure of fascism.
The tragedy in Jojo Rabbit is not just the death of Jojo’s mother, but the implied death of Captain Klenzendorf. Given the circumstances, there is no denying he deserves some form of justice, but the film asks: sure, his actions embody evil, but did his heart? Were he born American, would he not have joined the army, seeking to liberate Germany, and thus be branded a hero and given the glory he so desired? Under the Nazis, he became both victim and victimizer. His sin was not malice. His sin was a lack of courage, a failure to rebel.
Jojo Rabbit assumes the evil of fascism to be self-evident. Instead, it wishes to consciously interrogate it and how people can be swept up by it, whether in Klenzendorf’s desire for glory or Jojo’s desire for a father figure. It follows in the tradition of Mel Brooks’ films and cleverly avoids the mistake of making its satire serious, which frequently results in the satire being taken at face value by the targets of satire. In Jojo Rabbit, humour reveals tragedy, it reveals truth.