Analysis of ‘Jojo Rabbit’

Jojo Rabbit is a 2019 comedy-satire-drama written and directed by Taika Waititi (based on Christine Leunens‘s 2008 book Caging Skies), and starring Roman Griffin Davis in the title role, Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and Thomasin McKenzie. Jojo is a ten-year-old German boy indoctrinated by Nazi ideology, hoping to join the Deutsches Jungvolk (DJ) in the Hitler Youth, and having an imaginary friend, a fanciful, buffoonish Hitler (played by Waititi).

The film got almost universal acclaim, especially for the performances, direction, screenplay, visual style, musical score, and production values. It was chosen by the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute as one of the ten best films of the year.

Here are some quotes:

Jojo Betzler: Adolph…I don’t think I can do this.
Adolf Hitler: What? Of course you can. Sure, you’re a little bit scrawny and a bit unpopular and you can’t tie your shoelaces even though you’re 10 years old, but you’re still the bestest, most loyal little Nazi I’ve ever met. Not to mention the fact you’re really good looking. So you’re gonna get out there and you’re gonna have a great time, okay?
Jojo Betzler: Okay.
Adolf Hitler: That’s the spirit, okay. [Adolf turns Jojo around] Heil me, man.
Jojo Betzler: Heil Hitler.

Captain Klenzendorf: Today you boys will be involved in such activities as marching, bayonet drills, grenade throwing, trench digging, map reading, gas defence, camouflage, ambush techniques, war games, firing guns and blowing stuff up. [boys cheer] The girls will practice important womanly duties such as dressing wounds, making beds and learning how to get pregnant.
Fraulein Rahm: I had eighteen kids for Germany. Such a great year to be a girl!

‘Let them say whatever they want. People used to say a lot of nasty things about me. “Oh, this guy’s a lunatic!” “Oh, look at that psycho! He’s gonna get us all killed!”‘ –Hitler

[Rosie and Jojo come upon six people hanging from a gallows in the town square] Jojo Betzler: What did they do?
Rosie: What they could.

Elsa Korr: You know what I am.
Jojo Betzler: No.
Elsa Korr: Yes. Say it. Say it!
Jojo Betzler: A Jew?
Elsa Korr: Gesundheit.

“There are no weak Jews. I am descended from those who wrestle angels and kill giants. We were chosen by God. You were chosen by a pathetic little man who can’t even grow a full moustache.” –Elsa

Jojo Betzler: I said to draw where Jews live. This is just a stupid picture of my head.
Elsa Korr: Yeah, that’s where we live.

Rosie: You’re growing up too fast. Ten-year-olds shouldn’t be celebrating war and talking politics. You should be climbing trees and then falling out of those trees.
Jojo Betzler: But the Führer says when we win, it is us, young boys who will rule the world.
Rosie: Pfft! The Reich is dying. We’re going to lose the war and then what are you going to do, hmm? Life is a gift. We must celebrate it. We have to dance to show God we are grateful to be alive.
Jojo Betzler: Well, I won’t dance. Dancing is for people who don’t have a job.
Rosie: Dancing is for people who are free. It’s an escape from all this.

“You and your friends may have heard a rumor that Hitler only has one ball. This is nonsense. He has four.” –Deertz, to Jojo

“You two seem to be getting on well!” –Hitler, to Jojo, annoyed that the boy is starting to like Elsa

“She doesn’t seem like a bad person.” –Jojo, defending his friendship with Elsa to ‘Hitler’

“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes swastikas and likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.” –Elsa

“Fuck off, Hitler!” –Jojo [then kicks him out the window]

Johannes “Jojo” (which incidentally, with German pronunciation, would sound like ‘yo-yo‘) is a lonely little boy without his father and sister; he just wants to fit in. The problem is that he lives in one of the most exclusionary societies in history–Nazi Germany.

Having so few people in his real life to connect with, Jojo has to split his ego, along with the objects of the real world that his ego would connect with, into a pair of opposites: one of this pair libidinously linking with an idealized, exciting object of his fantasies (his imaginary friend in Hitler); and the other, an anti-libidinal ego linking with a hated, rejecting object–the conception of Jews that he’s been indoctrinated into believing is what real Jews are.

Counteracting this splitting in his mind is the ironic casting for ‘Hitler’ (Waititi is part Maori, part Jew) and the Jewish girl, Elsa Korr (McKenzie, a non-Jew, is a New Zealander of English and Scottish descent). The implication in this casting, it seems, is to make a plea for tolerance and inclusion.

To help relate a story set in the mid-1940s to our time, in which fascism is again rising (and, of course, to enhance the comedic effect), the characters speak with German accents, but also use contemporary English colloquialisms. Adding to the irony is how Jojo’s hero, Hitler, is a cartoonish clown who smokes (the real Hitler would have already permanently given up smoking decades before the time of this movie). Jojo thus has an odd way of portraying his idealizations in his mind.

Since Hitler was idealized as the hero of an indoctrinated nation, he was rather like the rock star of his time, idolized by a German public as blind to his faults as a rock star’s teenage fans are to his or hers. Accordingly, as Jojo is going through the streets of his town proudly doing his “Heil Hitler” Nazi salute, we hear the Beatles singing their German version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which is “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” (“Come, Give Me Your Hand”). Footage is seen of young German women screaming in ecstasy at the sight of Hitler, just as teenage girls in the 1960s would have at the sight of the Fab Four (I discussed the comparison of the idolatry of fascism with that of rock stars in my analysis of Pink Floyd: the Wall).

Because of his indoctrination, Jojo has built up a False Self of being a ruthless killer of all enemies of the Third Reich. With the DJ knife he’s been given, a symbolic phallus, he fantasizes about stabbing his enemies with it.

When this killer instinct of his is put to the test, though, his hidden True Self, a gentle boy who’d never want to harm a defenceless animal, emerges in his inability to kill a rabbit. From this, he earns the nickname of “Jojo Rabbit,” and he runs away from the Nazi youths who mock him. It doesn’t matter that he’s an “Aryan”: even he cannot fit in with the Nazi club.

It’s fitting that, earlier, we hear Tom Waits‘s song “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” during the training activities of the Deutsches Jungvolk: these are people whose thinking is completely distorted by politically immature thinking. Few white supremacists ever want to outgrow their collectively narcissistic ideology.

Desperate to prove his ‘worthiness’ as a brave Nazi, Jojo lets his imaginary friend inspire him to grab a Stielhandgranate and throw it without proper training. He is badly injured and scarred as a result of the inevitable accident, and is now bad-mouthed as ‘ugly’ by his fellow Nazis.

Only the love of his mother, Rosie (Johansson), can soothe him, though his Nazi indoctrination makes him none too appreciative of her anti-Naziism. These feelings of hers are especially evident when he learns she’s been hiding a Jewish teen in their house!

Before he discovers her, he has been wandering about lonely in his house, visiting the bedroom of his dead sister, Inge. The juxtaposition of being in her room with finding her old classmate, Elsa, immediately after establishes the beginnings of a transference of his feelings for the former girl onto the latter, though he’ll have to overcome his antisemitic prejudices first.

Another association of Inge with Elsa comes later, when the latter pretends to be the former in order not to be caught by the Gestapo inspecting the house. This tense scene strengthens Jojo’s transference of his sister onto Elsa, and we can see the empathic fear he has for the Jewish girl’s life.

His realization that she’s “a Jew,” followed by her saying “Gesundheit,” is–apart from being one of the best jokes in the film–full of resonant meaning. “Achoo!”–the expulsion of germs from the nose in a sneeze–is symbolically a projection of what’s sick inside a Nazi onto a Jew, the disease of antisemitism as a projected self-hate.

Similarly, Jojo’s unmitigated terror at having found her hiding in his home is a projection of the fear he causes a Jew to feel from having been found by a Nazi. Her hiding place is symbolic of the unconscious, for all of his absurd beliefs about Jews are just that–all in his head (as Elsa points out to him in her “Dummkopf” drawing of him), with no basis in external reality, everything bad in himself repressed, split-off, and projected outside.

When Elsa takes Jojo’s DJ knife, then later another knife he’s got from the kitchen in an apparent need to defend himself from her, these are symbolic castrations. Furthermore, when he blusters about his supposed Aryan superiority, she quickly overpowers him and puts him in his place. When he mentions his bizarre beliefs about Jews, she has no choice but to call him an idiot.

Nonetheless, the only way she can cure him of his belief in antisemitic canards is, temporarily, to humour him by going along with his nonsense. In this sense, she is playing the role of psychotherapist for him, taking in the agitation of his prejudices, containing them, then returning them to him in a detoxified form…or, at least, in progressively less toxic forms.

Wishing to write a book about Jews, he asks her to tell him all about her “race.” She repeats back to him a number of the absurd canards he already believes, while also adding false ideas to make fun of his beliefs (feeding her well will kill her, apparently), or to turn the tables on him and get him to realize who the real monsters are around him (Jews are like Nazis, only human).

His unconscious transference of dead Inge onto Elsa will help him in his ‘psychotherapy.’ Since, if he reports Elsa to the Gestapo, not only will she be taken away, but also he and Rosie will be, for having protected her, he must realize that this Jew is connected to his family intimately. He’ll thus have to give up his belief that Jews and “Aryans” are irreconcilably different.

His mother has been trying to find the real Jojo buried deep down under his Nazi False Self, but she has been failing where Elsa will ultimately succeed. This is partly because Rosie focuses on being cheerful and optimistic, whereas Elsa faces the dark, painful root of Jojo’s problem: his loss of family, his loss of connection with real people.

The boy has lost his father, missing in action and secretly working with the anti-Nazi resistance in Italy, as his mother is doing in their German town. Inge is dead, and his mother will be hanged as an enemy of the Nazi state. Because of his Hitler/imaginary friend, Jojo doesn’t sufficiently appreciate his actual friend, Yorki (played by Archie Yates).

Rosie would dance in gleeful anticipation of the imminent Nazi loss of the war, but setting this example for Jojo won’t cure him of his indoctrination. We can dance when we’re free…but Jojo hasn’t freed his mind yet.

He’ll be mentally freed when he can integrate the split parts of his mind (to use the terminology of WRD Fairbairn, these parts of his mind are: his Libidinal Ego, linked with the Exciting Object–‘Hitler’; and his Anti-libidinal Ego, linked with the Rejecting Object–‘the Jew’), to allow him to relate his True Self (or in Fairbairn’s terminology, Jojo’s Central Ego) with real people in the external world (the Ideal Object–for Jojo, this is exemplified in Elsa and Yorki).

His frustration with his mother, over her refusal to conform with his Nazi ideals, makes her, in his mind, what Melanie Klein called the ‘bad mother,’ intensifying his splitting into what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position. Rosie’s execution will cause Jojo to mourn that ‘bad mother,’ and to wish to reintegrate her good and bad sides in his mind, to experience the depressive position.

His interactions with Elsa will help him lay the foundations for such an integration. In his attempt to brag about the ‘superiority’ of German ‘Aryan’ culture, he can only bring up the names of classical composers such as Bach, Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven (as for Germans other than musicians, I suppose Goethe slipped Jojo’s mind), whereas Elsa can mention talented, famous Jews in a wide variety of areas, including science (Einstein), poetry (Rilke had a Jewish mother), magicians (Houdini), artists (Modigliani), and even religious founders (Moses and Jesus).

One of the major things that makes Jojo change his mind about Elsa is when she mentions her fiancé, Nathan (who Jojo eventually learns has died of tuberculosis); but when Jojo forges a letter claiming that Nathan wants to dump her, Jojo hears her softly weeping in her hiding place. The sound of her sobs makes him feel something one would never expect a Nazi to feel: compassion for a Jew. Therefore, he quickly fakes another letter, claiming Nathan doesn’t want to leave her.

This moment in the film proves my point about what Jojo needs to be cured of his Nazi indoctrination: relationships. He’s lost most of his family relationships (while Rosie’s still alive), so he’s replaced them with his imaginary Hitler-friend, and he desperately wants to join the Deutsches Jungvolk. But when they reject him, and when Elsa opens his mind, he finds himself more and more ready to reject ‘Hitler.’ Think of all those neo-Nazi skinheads, and how much of their anger and hate comes from an aggravation of social alienation.

At first, ‘Hitler’ is merely a bumbling fool (and, come to think of it now, so was the real Hitler). Some have criticized Jojo Rabbit for its ‘inaptly’ comic portrayal of Hitler, but recall the words of a German Protestant whose antisemitic writings made him, ironically, among the Nazis’ favourite reading, Martin Luther: “I often laugh at Satan, and there is nothing that makes him so angry as when I attack him to his face, and tell him that through God I am more than a match for him.” Later, when Jojo grows more independent in his thinking, we see, more vividly, his imaginary friend’s dark side.

When the Gestapo does an inspection of his house, Jojo is worried that Elsa–him having fully achieved a transference of Inge onto her (who is impersonating his sister at the time) in his mind–will be arrested. Yet they presumably have instead found something incriminating on Rosie (i.e., her “Free Germany” messages), for she is executed soon after.

Just before he finds her hanging, Jojo has been following a bright blue butterfly fluttering before him. In other words, he has been just beginning to appreciate life and its beauty before experiencing the trauma of seeing her distinctive shoes hanging, just below eye level, before him.

As a last, symbolic gesture of love for her, he does for her what she has done so many times before for him: he ties her shoelaces. Shots of eye-like windows of the houses, surrounding him and the hanged at the gallows in the town square, suggest that he should be careful of who’s watching him show love to an executed enemy of the Third Reich.

Captain Klenzendorf (or ‘Captain K’–played by Rockwell), during the Gestapo’s inspection of Jojo’s house, has lied to protect Elsa in going along with her impersonation of Inge. Deertz gets Jojo’s DJ knife back from her and puts it down to look at Jojo’s book on Jews; then Captain K picks it up and returns it to him. (Since it’s understood that the captain is a closet gay Nazi in a relationship with his second-in-command, Finkel [Alfie Allen], we can see how he’d naturally sympathize with other “Untermenschen” like Elsa).

In his grief and rage over his mother’s execution, Jojo, with the few remaining crumbs of Nazi in him, wants to stab Elsa with his knife, blaming her in his mind for Rosie’s death. Elsa stops the blade from going deep inside her, but it does cut in a little bit. She’s allowed the tip to poke a tiny hole in her upper right chest, by her shoulder.

Her receiving of the blade symbolizes her once again curing him of his Nazi mentality by containing his rage (the contained symbolized by his knife, her body symbolizing the container; see above for links explaining Bion‘s theory of containment; see also this link for his and other psychoanalytic concepts). She must allow him his moment of rage before she can detoxify it. Note the feminine symbol for the container, a yonic symbolism in her wound, and the masculine symbol for the contained, his phallic knife.

Jojo loves Elsa and calls her his “girlfriend,” hence the sexual symbolism of their container/contained relationship. His conflict over this love versus his residual antisemitism accounts for the violence of this containing of his knife (a negative containment). The conflict is also expressed in the growing jealousy that his Hitler/imaginary friend feels…while lying in Jojo’s bed!

Since the Nazis know they are losing the war, Captain K has to prepare a defence against the invading Americans from the West and the Russians from the East. It’s interesting how the Russians are described and portrayed in the harshest way (in this bourgeois liberal Hollywood film), and are never called Soviets. “They’re worse than anyone,” Yorki tells Jojo. (!)

The American soldiers drive around the captured German town showing off their flag, thus being portrayed as liberators in the film; while the Soviets are seen as just a bunch of ruthless executioners, not only of all the bad Nazis, but also of our finally openly gay Captain K in his colourful, flamboyant uniform. Now, anyone who has properly read history knows it was mainly the Soviets who saved Europe from fascism, having sacrificed so many more Russian lives than the sacrificed lives of their Western counterparts. Also, it was the Americans and West Germans who gave jobs to many ex-Nazis to help them fight the USSR during the Cold War.

The tension between East Berlin and the ex-Nazis working with NATO in West Berlin, among other causes, led to the building of the Berlin Wall, or Anti-fascist Protection Wall, as the East Germans called it. Such is the needed correction to all the capitalist propaganda of the Wall as an instrument of “oppression”: it was more about keeping the fascists out (and preventing the danger of World War III) than about keeping people in.

As Jojo walks about his town and sees the death and destruction all around him, he realizes that war isn’t the glorious thing he’s been indoctrinated to believe it is. He also learns from Yorki, one of his few true friends whose indoctrination is also waning, that Hitler has not only shot himself in the head in despair over losing the war, but that he’s also responsible for the atrocities the SS has committed and kept hidden from the public eye.

And so, when Jojo sees his Hitler/imaginary friend one last time, ‘Hitler’ has a bloody wound in his left temple, and he is in a particularly grouchy mood. Jojo, no longer sympathetic to him, tells him to “fuck off,” and kicks him out the window.

Because of his choice to give up his Nazi ideology and save Elsa, and because she has so bravely endured through this whole ordeal, both of them are heroes…”für einen Tag,” and I’d say for many more days after that. They are now free to dance and celebrate life, as Rosie would have wanted them to, hence we hear the German version of David Bowie‘s “Heroes.”

Now, Germany may have been split in two at the end of the war, but Jojo’s splitting has been cured. He is reintegrated and able to see people as each a mix of good and bad. He can see Elsa as a human being, and not just as “a Jew.” Having revived his ability to have relationships with real, and not imaginary, friends, he no longer needs a fascist demagogue to be his hero; nor does he need to fit in with others in a superficial, cultish way. He can be his own hero, and win…”für immer und immer.”

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