NOTE: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR JOJO RABBIT
It’s a surreal time to be aware of – let alone following – the news cycle these days. Government officials proudly admit to crimes on Twitter, in press conferences, and then insist they are not crimes and why are you so triggered by a little treason, anyway?
We are in an age of disinformation at an unprecedented scale, and on a multiplicity of platforms designed to overwhelm and exhaust. Young white men in particular have come of age in this world looking for purpose, for belonging, looking for someone to blame because the world their parents promised them isn’t the world they were given. They’re looking for some heroic old white man to ride in on a horse and tell them what to do. And they are ready to do it, to cling to that feeling of belonging, of being God’s chosen people, of being better than anyone else by virtue of birth, not merit.
These cycles come and go. And as the line between truth and fiction, good and bad – as demonstrated by those in power – seems to blur more with each passing day, it’s no wonder we are creating movies about super heroes and villains; and returning to the subject of the last great war where the bad guys and less-bad guys were clearest. Where it seemed good and evil met head first, and against all odds, good triumphed.
Nazis are bad. This used to be a pretty clear-cut line where I was from, growing up. Oh, yes, there was racism and sexism and homophobia and classism and capitalism and all the rest. But as a kid I knew this, and still know this to be true: Nazis are fucking bad.
With the current rise of nationalism, which has always been bubbling and scheming in American culture, I saw that core beliefs of my childhood – one of the few that made it to adulthood – continually questioned and “debated” online, then on TV, then by politicians with the power to take away the rights of real human beings at will. I saw a barely coherent megalomaniac ascend to the highest level of our government, and I woke up that morning with a grim understanding of what it must have been like that morning in Germany, when everyone hastened to reassure themselves that no, it would be all right. Hitler says a lot of things. He won’t do them.
We have now separated over 69,000 refugee children from their parents as they sought asylum in our country. Some have died in custody. Dozens, probably hundreds, more have been sexually abused and assaulted. Thousands more have been stolen and trafficked – “adopted” out into white Christian families despite having living family members desperately searching for them. We have banned people from specific countries, predominately of one religion, from ever traveling to ours. Our government institutions are rapidly being demolished and portioned out to rich tyrants. One of my own young relatives drew a goddamn swastika at school, thinking it was hilarious.
Dear reader, I could never in a million, trillion years have ever conceived of drawing a swastika for any fucking reason, ever. My veteran grandfather would have thrown me down the goddamn stairs, and I would have deserved it.
For all the horror, there is also an absurdity to this type of fascism. The extreme delusion that having the mutant genes that make your skin pale or your eyes blue makes you an objectively better person than your neighbor. The idea that an old, unhinged man can stand up in front of a crowd and declare he has absolutely done things that he clearly has not done, and that people will believe him. The kids who admire him, who look up to him as the only one “willing to tell the truth” while non-partisan fact-checkers struggle to keep up with pointing out all the lies.
Jojo Rabbit does what the best stories do, taking us out of our own era of absurd nationalism and bringing to life a small boy immersed in his own era of rabid fascism.
What made the humor of the film so cutting is that the wild “summer camp for Hitler youth” really was a thing in the Nazi era. Women really were encouraged to go off and “breed” at get-aways with select “Aryan” dudes. Toward the end, the German army really was sending out kids from twelve to fourteen to fight, and many of them were still doing it gladly.
Nationalism is a hell of a drug.
Watching Jojo embrace the fun, social, campy aspects of the Hitler youth and then slowly, over the course of the film, begin to understand it wasn’t make-believe, it wasn’t a joke, it’s real people, there are real consequences, was deeply cathartic. As the world around him gets darker, the jovial Hitler of his imagination gets meaner and meaner.
I couldn’t help thinking about all of the white men (and women, sure, but mostly it’s men yelling) radicalized on our current timeline, the ones who threaten to rape and murder women, and talk about hanging journalists, the ones who yell “Fuck your feelings!” and “Immigrants are dogs!” who help radicalize others around them, not just themselves. For every kid that shoots up a school or murders a black congregation, there are hundreds of others online egging him on, normalizing his views, making him think it’s all right.
Many of them never see or have to live with the consequences of their actions. Many continue to live in a white, untouchable bubble. But normalizing hate matters. And this is why.
Nazis are why. Mass shootings are why. Kids in cages are why.
Jojo Rabbit was a delight in how deftly it dealt with the horror and absurdity of fascism through the eyes of a kid who thought he would benefit from it; a kid who thought it was a fun club pitting him and his friends against demons. But as Jojo’s world slowly comes apart, so too does his view of the regime trying to use him for their own ends. His limp and scarred face mean he no longer meets the Aryan ideal. He befriends the Jewish girl his mother is hiding, and discovers she is not at all like what the party says she should be. They murder his mother, the one good person in his life. Finally, even Hitler abandons him, blows his own brains out, a coward who abandons him and his friends to the invading armies.
Jojo breaks, and he runs, and he hides. Because he is still, deep down, a rabbit. Just a rabbit.
There’s been some ink spilled about whether or not it’s “OK” to punch Nazis, about how we should just “debate” them or some shit, while they are out here pumping up the New Hitler Youth. This is why you punch Nazis. This is why you draw a line in the sand. You deliver consequences. Nazi in your life? Cut them off. Tell them why: because you are a goddamn Nazi. Remove them from private platforms. Break up their meetings. Throw shit. Burn their flags. Do not tolerate this shit. Do not.
Today I am watching some folks who tried holding up this regime scrambling to shit on each other, laying blame on everyone else to save their own skins. Their dear leader has thrown them to the wolves as all these meglomaniacs do. The snake eating its own tail. Eventually these nationalists run out of “enemies of the state” and begin to eat their own.
Jojo found that out.
I sure hope more fanatics do, too.
Until then, I take great comfort in films like these; World War II films where I already know the outcome, where I don’t have to guess or worry.
The stories where the Nazis always lose.