Imagine the menace

23 March 2020

How does a 10-year-old German boy make sense of a world in which most of the adults appear to gone mad? In this film he invents an ‘Imaginary Friend’, but in this case the ‘Imaginary Friend’ turns out to be none other than Adolf Hitler himself.

The film, which has received very mixed reviews but also Oscar nominations, is set in 1944 Germany. At home young Jojo is protected by his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johnson), his father is missing at the front and his sister dead. He is forced to join the Hitler Youth, where he is mercilessly bullied for refusing to kill a rabbit and where as a result of an accident with a grenade he spends his time working for Captain Klenzendoff (Sam Rockwell). Little surprise, then, that he needs friendship and reassurance. This is initially supplied by his imaginary Hitler, who tries to inculcate the boy with his warped ideology. Jojo becomes more sceptical, especially when he discovers his mother has been hiding a young Jewish girl called Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic. As his relationship with Elsa grows his need for his evil imaginary friend declines.

Imaginary friends or companions are not new in films as a device for the character to discuss his feelings, most notably in Woody Allen’s ‘Play it again Sam’, where Humphrey Bogart was used as a foil for Allen himself. Imaginary friends are well recorded in child psychology, notably in Bowlby (1979) famous ‘Attachment and Loss’. Their function, Bowlby suggests, is akin to transitional objects in giving vulnerable children reassurance and as an aid to develop social understanding and behaviour. Taylor, in an extensive 1999 review of the subject, provides evidence that children can invent imaginary friends in times of stress, but that these friends are invariably kind and supportive (which hardly describes this Hitler). In this film the dictator, played by the director Taika Waititi (pictured above), is a rather zany uncoordinated goofy character and a mere vehicle to bully Jojo into adopting Nazi ideology. The Hitler character, like many other in the film, including Stephen Merchant's gestapo chief, seems to lack any menace at all. As a result the pure evil of the Nazi regime is never made apparent until one scene towards the end of the film when Jojo discovers his mother hung on a gibbet in the town square with other arrested collaborators.

The film has its strong points; Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzoff is a great comic cameo, and Thomsin McKensie’s portrayal of the hiding Jewish girl Elsa is one of great sensitivity as she develops a relationship with the lost Jojo.    

However, although the film has its moments, it comes over as rather bland. It lacks the cutting edge of other films that have presented Hitler in comic form, namely Chaplin’s ‘Great Dictator’ or in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, a film which takes bad taste to a new dimension. Both these films are truly funny films, so much so that Chaplin was at the top of the list of British people that Hitler intended to execute should he have won the war. There is nothing dictators hate more than ridicule.

Dr Jeremy Swinson, Independent Educational Psychologist, Liverpool