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Hero-worship, Humor & the Harrowing Rescue of Jojo Rabbit

The montage that runs under the opening credits of Jojo Rabbit is one of the most insightful moments in a movie full of insights. Newsreel footage of Nazi youth rallies is accompanied by The Beatles’ “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” (a German language version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” that The Beatles recorded in 1964). Frenzied, dewy-eyed teenage girls scream “Heil Hitler!” But if you weren’t watching their lips closely, you might think they were screaming “Paul!” or “Ringo!” Arms wave frantically in the air, like those of excited fans at Shea Stadium. It is only after the second or third shot that you realize that the hands are extended in a Nazi salute. Likewise the hysterical cheering running along in the background might have been recorded at the Nuremburg rallies, or it might have been the crowd at the Ed Sullivan Theater (“Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Beatles!!”).

Like a lot of the movie that follows, it’s a sequence that is simultaneously funny and unsettling. Probably (I was left thinking) some of the people carrying out the genocides of the 1940s spent the 1930s, not as little hardcore junior fascists, but as star-struck teenagers. Perhaps one of the greatest evils in human history had its roots, not only in twisted philosophy and racial hatred, but also in herd mentality, hype, and peer pressure.

Could that be right? Could the same impulse that leads a teenager to wear a Billie Eilish t-shirt also lead him to wear a swastika?

This idea, which is presented so powerfully in the opening sequence, is one of the subtexts of the entire film. Cruel and barbaric ideologies like National Socialism (the movie suggests) are fueled, at least in part, by pretty typical teenage impulses like hero-worship and the desire to be part of the crowd. For instance, Jojo’s indoctrination takes place at Hitler Jugend Camp, but it would only require minor adjustments to wardrobe and dialog to transform it into the camps run every summer by the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, or your local church youth group. Writer/Director Taiki Waititi very clearly plays up this wild incongruity for comic effect. (Nazi Summer Camp!! Crafts! Hand Grenades! Anti-Semitic Propaganda! S’mores!)

“FRAULEIN RAHM: Now, get your things together kids, it’s time to burn some books! CHILDREN: Yayyyy!!!” Jojo Rabbit screenplay

Likewise, Jojo’s bedroom (to take another example) is plainly the bedroom of a 10 year-old boy, but with Nazi flags and propaganda occupying the places where one would normally expect to see posters of baseball players and Metallica. And of course, the central conceit of the film is that Hitler is not only the Führer of Nazi Germany, but is also Jojo’s imaginary best friend. (And he delivers exactly the sort of goofy dialog a 10 year-old might imagine.) Jojo Rabbit offers us Nazism refracted through the adoring eyes of a hero-worshipping, adventure-starved fanboy. But Waititi presses his point even further. It’s not just that National Socialism seems fun and exciting to pre-adolescents. The adult Nazis, the soldiers, and even the Gestapo are portrayed as credulous, grown-up teenagers. They exchange sensationalistic anti-Semitic tall tales, like kids telling fantastical horror stories at a sleep-over. They “heil Hitler” one another compulsively, like members of a treehouse club exchanging a secret handshake. In one of the movie’s climactic scenes, Elsa, the Jew hiding in Jojo’s crawlspace, insists on exposing this childishness as childishness:

“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a 10 year old kid who ‘likes’ Swastikas and ‘likes’ dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.” Jojo Rabbit screenplay

Elsa’s speech is wonderful. But the fact that she’s correctly diagnosed Jojo—and the dismissiveness in her voice—shouldn’t lead us to underestimate just how powerful that impulse is; that desire “to be part of a club.” There are few instincts more basic. If the God who exists in an eternal community of Father, Son, and Spirit has likewise made us for community, then the desire to be part—of a family, of a community—is at the heart of our human identity. I did not (thank you Lord God) have to struggle against a peer group fascinated by swastikas and hand grenades. But as a student, and then as a teacher, I have seen the same sort of group dynamic portrayed in Jojo Rabbit acted out dozens of times. In the course of their education people regularly undertake major philosophical and ideological shifts, not so much because of argument and reflection, but out of a vague sense of “this is how everyone looks at things,” and a desire to keep in step.

If there’s one thing the film makes clear, it’s that groups are misled not by hearing too many voices, but by hearing too few. Steve Guthrie

The fact that Jojo Rabbit is a comedy is fitting too. One of the most powerful ways groups exercise this compulsion toward conformity is through laughter. This is not only the case in the film, but in my own experience as well. Reflect for a moment on the persuasive power of humor; how firmly we feel drawn away from a prior certainty merely by an ironic eye-roll; how easily a sardonic grin can cause us to adjust the direction of a comment midstream; how decisively a chuckle and a shake of the head seem to defeat deeply held convictions.

Everyone laughs at that way of thinking; therefore that way of thinking must be laughable!

I had a significant crisis of faith my first year of college, and it was precipitated in just this way, by a classroom outburst of laughter. The simple evidence of my classmates’ reaction seemed self-evidently persuasive. I felt suddenly ashamed.

Oh no—they’re laughing! The things I believe are ridiculous.

In the movie as well, hatred of Jews manifests itself not so often in violence as in mockery. Immediately I think of the Great Precedent for this: “They twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’” (Mtt. 27:29) “Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him.” (Luke 23:11) “In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves.” (Mark 15:31)

When Gestapo agents discover Yoohoo Jew (Jojo’s illustrated “exposé of the Jews”), they page through the fantastical and grotesque depictions, dissolving into helpless giggles. “Oh, this is hilarious!” the head agent gasps. “I must thank you for this. You have really made my day.”

Of course, mockery is not the only kind of laughter: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy!” (Psalm 126:1-2) And even mockery can function, not only as an indoctrination, but as a kind of deliverance. This is the claim of the two quotations C. S. Lewis uses as an epigraph to The Screwtape Letters:

“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” —Martin Luther
“The devil…that proud spirit…cannot endure to be mocked.” —Thomas Moore

In a way, this is the project of the entire film. Taiki Waititi has produced his own version of Yoohoo Jew: an exposé of the Nazis that unmasks them as not only cruel and inhuman, but also as childish and ridiculous.

And if laughter can be not only corrosive but redemptive, the same of course is true of others’ influence. It’s easy to imagine watching the opening “Fascism-as-Beatlemania” sequence of Jojo Rabbit, and deciding that the wisest course of action is (to quote another Beatles song): “Think For Yourself.”

Be an individual; don’t follow the crowd; don’t listen to others. Do what seems best to you and don’t give a rip about what anyone else thinks.

This is, more or less, the Modern Western Enlightenment response to the dangers of credulity and herd mentality. The philosopher Immanuel Kant defined “Enlightenment” as having the “courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. . . ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.” (Was ist Aufklärung?, 1784) So in other words, Kant’s prescription is resolute self-reliance; a refusal to base one’s beliefs on the testimony of others. This, I think, is precisely the wrong response.

In the film, it’s not rugged individualism that rescues Jojo from Nazism, but love. Indeed, if there’s one thing the film makes clear, it’s that groups are misled not by hearing too many voices, but by hearing too few. Jojo’s problem is not a group that’s grown too large, but a group whose boundaries have grown too small. Similarly, the antidote for his anti-Semitism is not isolation but encountering a Jew. He is terrified by his first meeting with Elsa, which is telling. She is as much a threat to him as he is to her; though admittedly, they pose different kinds of threat to one another. Elsa needs to hide from the Nazis to remain alive; the Nazis need Elsa to hide to remain Nazis. If she reveals herself, she simultaneously reveals the silliness of their propaganda. (“How would you know if you saw [a Jew]?” Jojo’s friend Yorki asks. “They can look just like us.” “Oh I’d know,” Jojo assures him. “I’d feel its head for horns. And they smell like Brussels Sprouts.”) This is a sobering idea for those (like myself) who homeschool our children. It may be that the greatest danger to our children is not being exposed to the multiple sinful perspectives of the world, but being limited to the single sinful perspective of their parents.

Jojo is rescued by finding himself in another, more life-giving and expansive community. He abandons Hitler when the boundaries of National Socialism prove too narrow to accommodate his devotion to his mother and his growing love for Elsa. The bonds forged with the Hitler Youth can’t be maintained without breaking other bonds that are deeper and more resilient. This, in fact, very much resembles the miracle that unfolds in the early church. The first Christians (just like many of us) were people who found their primary identity in family or tribe, in their social class or status, in their religious or cultural heritage. But Paul declares that now, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” (Gal. 3:28) One of the most radical things the early church did was have Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free people, men and women share the same bread and the same cup. Shockingly, the members of this disparate body come to call one another “brother” and “sister.” Just as Jojo discovers (to his horror) that he loves the Jew living behind the hidden space in the wall, so first century Gentiles discovered that they loved the Jews seated around them at table. (And likewise, first century Jews discovered they loved the Gentiles seated around them.) Their new identity (“brother to a Jew;” “sister to a slave,”) overflowed the banks of their old identity (“Jew, NOT a Gentile;” “Free person, RATHER THAN a slave”).

My daughter Sophie (at whose urging I watched the movie in the first place) tells me that one of the first decisions Waititi made when making Jojo Rabbit was choosing David Bowie’s “Heroes” to play over the final scene and closing credits:

I will be king And you You will be queen Though nothing Will drive them away We can beat them Just for one day We can be heroes Just for one day —”Heroes,” David Bowie

I don’t know the reason for Waititi’s choice, but to my mind the two songs at either end of the film—“I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “Heroes”—perfectly frame the tensions at the heart of the story. Jojo and Elsa certainly are heroes; each rescuing the other from the Nazis, in different sorts of ways. On the other hand, ironically, it is precisely hero-worship from which Jojo’s heroine rescues him. Likewise, Waititi uses the opening soundtrack of “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” to showcase the destructive power of one sort of hero worship. And how can we counter the kind of fanaticism on display there? The answer the film offers is summarized in the same impulse for personal connection the song expresses: “Come—give me your hand.”

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