Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★★

While Jojo Rabbit operates with striking colours and seemingly simple themes, it has far more depth hidden just out of sight, inside all its crawl-spaces and concealed rooms. It may seem like the film only presents self-evident truths— such as ‘Nazis are bad’ ‘war is awful,’ ‘love is the antidote to hate,’ and so on— but each of these truths functions as the tip of an iceberg, revealing themselves against this symmetric sea of pleasing colours, and conveying a vast, unseen weight. The fun aesthetic and humour aren’t utilized to make the horrors of World War II more palatable; they instead act to smuggle in the seriousness of heavy topics, and to demonstrate how even the most cheerful and brightest light can conceal a wretched, evil darkness.

Taika Waititi portrays his imaginary Hitler in a way that turns Hitler into a laughing-stock— depriving him of his power— and also in a way that reveals the insidious pervasiveness of his charisma. The force of Hitler’s influence is so absolute that our protagonist— Johannes "Jojo" Betzler— can hear and see his persona, at all times. The doctrines of Nazism are always at work on him, under the ostensibly amicable guise of an imaginary friend. This is the effect of an internalized power structure, and the immense strength of it imposing on Jojo’s young mind is enough to cause a schism— in effect, splitting Jojo’s perception into that of himself as he is, and the embodiment of his instructions, through the form of Hitler. The resulting friction between the two selves is the force that will decide Jojo’s world-view.

The nature of this imaginary Hitler can be read as a limited Panopticon. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault takes the architecture of the Panopticon— a prison where the inmates are visible at all times, and unaware if and when they are being watched— and turns this system into a metaphor to describe the functioning of power in society at large. As Foucault explains, one of the main outcomes of the Panopticon is “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (201). These inmates, with the knowledge that they are permanently visible, will then police themselves, will involuntarily invoke the strictures of the law upon themselves, so the guards essentially don’t have to. This is what Foucault means by the “automatic functioning of power”: that, when power is invisible and turned into a self-impulse, then it is at its most dangerous. In Jojo we see something similar: his imagination of Hitler means that he is always observed, always scrutinized, and his idolization of him means that he never wishes to disappoint Hitler’s wishes. In this way, Hitler doesn't have to be present, but his power can still can automatically function within Jojo, shaping and controlling the child’s very instincts.

What allows this implementation of power to be even more successful is the sheer impressionability of the young mind. At this stage especially, the world is decided simply by what is said of it (or what is allowed to be said of it). The ideologies absorbed in childhood are often those with the deepest roots and the hardest to shake or uproot. Jojo’s own perceptions— after being so completely immersed in Nazism— are fundamentally challenged when he meets Elsa, a young Jewish girl who is hiding upstairs in his sister’s room. This interaction sparks the dramatic tension which will develop over the course of the film, and their relationship is crucial to the depth of the film’s themes. It suggests that any worldview isn’t complete without an interaction/confrontation with the Other. For, in the Other, there is always a seed of the self— always the Unknown forces a recognition, or resolution, of something internal. And it is in the Other that one is provided a chance to see the reflections of their own beliefs— to see themselves truly.

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