Jojo Rabbit is the movie of the decade. I know, it is quite saying something so very early on into the year, leave alone the next ten years. But it is a movie that needed to be made about a time that has been returned to quite often but not through such an unconventional lens as this movie does. When the movie begins with grainy black and white video clips of scores of Hitlerjungend (Hitler Youth) Jungvolk (Hitler Youngsters) it first shocks you—shocks you of a reality that existed but only vaguely remembered because much of the focus had been on the larger than life actors: Gestapo , SS, Nazis, and Hitler himself in our conscious. And to see excited children and teenagers heil-ing Hitler, you are left unsettled but the scene is set for the movie to begin.
It’s a story of a 10-year old Jojo, who navigates the world of being a Nazi; who believes in the stories Hitler and his men have weaved about Jews; and most importantly supports his country’s war efforts just as a 10-year-old would, with the child-like innocence and earnestness. But the movie presents it with much nuance and sensitivity that is required when your protagonist is a boy, without justifying the horrors of the time. And you see that nuance and sensitivity not only in the portrayal of Jojo and his discovery – a teenage Jewish girl living in his attic, Elsa, but also in two other supporting characters: Captain K played by Sam Rockwell and Rosie – Jojo’s mother, played by Scarlett Johansson—whose portrayal was a revelation.
She is a ray of optimism and hope in the dark tunnel of war and grief, teaching Jojo how to wink, playing pranks and dancing.
Rosie – a single mother whose husband is on the frontlines fighting in Hitler’s army – does not curtail her son’s enthusiasm to join the Jungvolk summer camp but in the confines of their home, time and again she reminds him not to invest in adults’ war and politics. She is a ray of optimism and hope in the dark tunnel of war and grief, teaching Jojo how to wink, playing pranks and dancing. And yet she is practical and determined for her son to know the true face of the war their country had started, forcing him to look at the fate of Nazi resistors when they walked past their town square. Apart from that Rosie not only rescues Elsa but also reminds her that only she has the power to live the life the way she wants.
There is a particularly poignant scene around the dinner table when Rosie and Jojo get into a heated argument about her lack of patriotism and latter cries for his father. What transpires next is a painful yet beautiful relationship unfolding between the single mothers of wars and their children – their struggle of raising children single-handedly, keeping the memory of the fathers alive and all the while protecting the innocence, goodness and humanity in their children.
We have never seen a parental figure who tries hard to protect the innocence of the child by bringing in levity during the harsh times.
We have seen several war movies both abroad and in India with very young soldiers like in Dunkirk, 1917, Testament of Youth, and Atonement, Border and Lakshya. We have seen proud but anxious fathers and teary-eyed mothers bidding their children goodbye as they march into wars, or deeply affected parental figures holding on to their children as the war rages on in the sky. But we have never seen a parental figure who tries hard to protect the innocence of the child by bringing in levity during the harsh times—not because it never happened, but because none of our onscreen stories depicted it, until now. And to show this, especially of a mother who was on the wrong side of history was bold but ultimately organic to the story and humane in its portrayal.
There is so much one can talk about this movie – the innocence of Jojo, the maturity of Elsa, the hilarious complexity named Captain K and the 10-year-old’s imagination of Hitler himself, but as the story ends with the Jojo and Elsa dancing in a free Germany, I see it as an ode to the single mothers of war who single-handedly raised good and kind-hearted children of the future.
Feature Image Credit: Larry Horricks/Twentieth Century Fox
Swathi Chaganty is a Programme Manager at Population First. The views expressed are the author’s own.
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