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Most kids have or had an imaginary friend at some point in their childhood. They can be a means for young people to develop their social skills, deal with boredom and loneliness, or simply expand their creativity. For some children, their imaginary friends can help with their morality, acting as a guiding voice or devil's advocate at a time in their lives when such tangled issues are too complex to understand otherwise. So, what do you do when you’re a pre-teen boy growing up in Nazi Germany and your imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler?
Say what you want about Taika Waititi, but he certainly isn’t one to take the safe route, and with Jojo Rabbit, which had its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, he’s given audiences one hell of a set-up for his self-described “anti-hate satire.”
Jojo Betzler (played by Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old boy whose entire life is dedicated to the Nazi party. Growing up in Germany during the Second World War and its ceaseless propaganda has ensured his devotion to the Third Reich and its fearless leader, even as the war nears its end and everyone around him seems sure that defeat is just around the corner. Whenever he feels down or concerned he won’t grow up to be the Best Nazi Ever, Hitler himself turns up to provide sound advice and words of zealous encouragement. The seeming simplicity of Jojo’s life comes to a grinding halt when he discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish woman named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic.
Hitler, as Jojo’s imaginary best friend, is played by Taika Waititi himself. The German accent is pretty wonky (everyone in the film seemed to have a pretty casual approach to perfecting said accent) and he’s in no way attempting to recreate the life, mannerisms, or voice of the real Adolf Hitler. But why would a little boy imagine him to be that way when every piece of media he’s consumed has told him his fearless leader is beyond human? This is where Jojo Rabbit truly shines and why the fantastical use of this abhorrent historical figure works so well.
This is a story about the fragility of propaganda and the ridiculous amount of work it takes to keep in place an ideology built on crumbling foundations. Mel Brooks famously did this with his own Nazi comedy The Producers, but Waititi uses the speculative aspect of an imaginary friend to show the absurdities and childlike petulance at the heart of this practice. What made so much of the Nazi Party’s propaganda eerily effective was its grandeur and seeming indomitability. Those endless shots of massive crowds cheering for Hitler and the might it implied felt invincible in the face of the Allies. Waititi shows it in the opening credits scored with a song by The Beatles. When Jojo cheers along Hitler, it’s not out of a true political devotion: it’s basically because he wants to be part of the group, a fanboy. Elsa even calls him out on this in the best line in the trailer:
"You're not a Nazi, Jojo. You're a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club."
How would a boy who has only known the most overblown version of history, as engineered by the liars, imagine Hitler if he was his friend? He’d see him as an overgrown kid with magical powers who eats unicorns for dinner. That’s not entirely the fantasies of a child. It can’t be when everything around him is confirming his silliest ideas. To challenge them is forbidden and they’re not sturdy enough to withstand the tiniest scrap of scrutiny anyway.
Pop culture and genre depictions of Adolf Hitler often lean heavily on this parodic aspect of the speculative nature of his mythos. Think of how his hunger for power manifests as a search for otherworldly artifacts in the Indiana Jones movies, even as he celebrates book burnings. He’s frequently shown as the result or devotee of mad science, from They Saved Hitler’s Brain to The Boys From Brazil (suitably, Jojo Rabbit has a cracking joke about Nazi cloning). Sci-fi literature loves an alternate history where the Nazis won the war, although even in many of these narratives, Hitler is either a buffoon or absent from the equation, as is the case in The Man in the High Castle. The influence of Allied propaganda on such pop culture is evident, and it’s all over Jojo Rabbit, a film whose sensibilities and intent would feel right at home in Disney’s wartime cartoon Der Fuehrer's Face. Absurdity is the name of the game, at least in depictions that aren’t beholden to historical detail. Then again, there’s a reason even Downfall, that most portentous of Hitler biopics, became a meme. It’s a big old f*ck you to Adolf’s own tactics to use them for mockery.
Some critics have accused Jojo Rabbit of being smug and dismissing the true monstrosities of the Nazi regime through its comedic approach, but that's a reductive way to look at what Taika Waititi has done with this project. Jojo sees his homeland as the playground promised to him through fantastical propaganda, even when the truth is evident to the adults who have long since become disenfranchised with the Nazi dream. His imaginary BFF Hitler is no more silly than the one created through Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda movies. He’s just a lot funnier, because why would a pre-teen boy want the serious version? By the film’s end, as Jojo has realized the true horrors of the ideology he has blindly swallowed since birth, he has no use for his Hitler anymore. To paraphrase Labyrinth, another wonderful film about the often smothering thrall of one’s own fantasies, he has no power over him now. And it didn’t take much to destroy the fantasy.
Jojo Rabbit had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8 and will be distributed in the United States on October 18.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.