Review: Reflections on Banal Evil in ‘Jojo Rabbit’

Review: Reflections on Banal Evil in ‘Jojo Rabbit’

“We can say that this radical evil arose in relation to a system in which all men have become equally superfluous. Those who manipulate this system believe in their own superfluity as much as in everyone else’s, and totalitarian killers are the most dangerous because they don’t care if they themselves are alive or dead, if they never lived or were never born. The danger of the corpse factories and the wells of oblivion is that today, with the universal increase in populations and exiles, large masses of people constantly become superfluous if we continue to think of our world in utilitarian terms. Political, social and economic events everywhere conspire silently with the totalitarian instruments invented to make men superfluous ”. (ARENDT, 2012, p. 609)[1]

it is far from being a merely comic film that seeks to mitigate the horrors perpetrated by 20th century totalitarianism. It is, in reality, a true way of denouncing Nazifascism from a typically “Arendtian” philosophical conception. However, before going into the ethical and political merit of the cinematographic work, it is necessary to briefly expose the plot.

The story is told with a focus on the trajectory of Jojo (Johannes Betzler), a 10-year-old boy and defender of the Nazi regime, whose imaginary friend was Adolf Hitler. Early on, he is summoned to a weekend camp where he should become a man and learn to be “a good Nazi” through some practices, such as: burning books, techniques of identifying Jews, as well as ways to kill them, among others.

jojo rabbit

Despite the proposal sounding like nefarious and a real abject, the film treats the issue with a tone of humor, of scrotal, starting with the director himself dressed as a Hitler repeating clichés of the Nazi regime and extremely comical. in order to promote a reflection on the dimension of totalitarianism, aiming, ultimately, to promote a strong criticism of the dictatorial ideal of the 20th century.

Throughout the film, we are introduced to other characters, such as Jojo’s mother (Rosie Betzler), who serves as a relief in the midst of the repressive climate, no matter how much she tolerates and respects her son’s political opinion. Another extremely relevant character is Elsa, the Jewess protected by Rosie herself, who hides her in the attic of the house and constantly watches over her safety.

It can be said that the relationship between Elsa and Jojo supports the film and from this relationship, the central character begins to question himself about his prejudices and the superficiality that supports the Nazi ideal.

This, by the way, is one of the biggest messages sent by the script: the coexistence of differences, whether through mother and child or even when Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, correct) appears, the Jew hidden in the attic of the house, in the best Anne Frank style . His contact with Jojo is immensely rich, whether due to the denunciation of prejudices or even the profusion of vaunted lies, both driven by ignorance and bad faith. [2]

It is worth mentioning that the main trait we perceive throughout the film is the fact that most of the characters (with the exception of Elsa and Jojo’s mother) are extremely shallow intellectually, superficial in their speeches and not very deep in the ideological justification of their worldview. , as they are mere cliché repeaters. They are pathetic figures and their lines boil down to joking and derogatory comments about the Jews. This fact is not only to enhance the comic aspect of the film, but also to portray one of the main concepts of political philosophy, namely: banality of evil.

The aforementioned concept was developed by Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). In her book, the thinker sought to describe and report the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi officer responsible for ordering the transport of Jews to concentration camps. Arendt says that when she was asked to cover the trial, she hoped to find an essentially evil, diabolical being, a faithful representative of radical evil, however, she suffered a disappointment when she came across a common, frivolous figure.

“(…) When she came across Eichmann – that bureaucrat responsible for transporting thousands of Jews to various extermination camps in Europe – and his cliché-filled speeches, it was a true anticlimax, as there was a huge gap between the magnitude of the crimes committed and that normal, superficial figure, a true misologist. Here, surrounded by a glass cabin, an ideal type of banal evil. From the testimonies given, she realized that Eichmann was neither villain nor anti-Semitic, but he was a legitimate representative of the banality of evil. ” (MORAES, 2016)[3].

The author says: “the greatest evil is not radical, it has no roots and, because it has no roots, it has no limitations, it can reach unthinkable extremes and dominate the whole world” (ARENDT, 2004, p. 160). Arendt is incisive in the affirmation that the evil practiced by many Nazis was not a radical evil, but a kind of “banality of evil”, without root, without depth, whose content was reduced to the mere fulfillment of orders.

“We were not interested here in evil, which religion and literature have tried to understand, but in evil; we were not interested in sins and great villains, who became negative heroes in literature and who generally acted out of envy and resentment, but in all those who are not evil, who have no special motives and, for that reason, are capable of infinite evil; unlike the villain, they never find their deadly midnight ”(ARENDT, 2004, p. 256)[4].

The danger of Banal Evil lies in its primordial characteristic: it is like a fungus, it does not have solid roots, but it spreads quickly and, in this way, it defies words and feelings. The banality of evil is a kind of inability to reflect on oneself, on one’s own actions, as well as taking advantage of the lack of communication skills to promote a worldview based on alienation and the very abolition of man.

“At various times and throughout the book, Arendt reinforces a striking characteristic that accompanies each and every representative of the banality of evil, namely, the inability to elaborate one’s own thought, the lack of communication skills and a memory that it was not absent, it was, however, selective. ” (MORAES, 2016).

The ability to think, that is, the exercise of Socratic dialogue with oneself is what qualifies being a person, according to Arendt. “Thinking is the solitary silent dialogue between me and myself, it is being aware of myself (…)” (MORAES, 2016). Eichmann was not a person without knowledge; it is worth mentioning that his profession required technical and conceptual information, as well as a certain logic of rationality; well, what he lacked was not knowledge, but the ability to reflect, to think about his actions and about the moral legitimacy of a conduct.

For this reason, Eichmann is seen as a reliable example of the banality of evil, because by giving up the faculty of thinking and the capacity for judgment, his behavior has reduced the pious repetition of Nazi clichés. “By refusing to think, he and so many others in Nazi Germany, were swept away by the logic of state reason that was justified by the right to exclude the“ other ”, which in that context was simply rendered superfluous” (MORAES, 2016) .

“It is not murder that is forgiven, but the murderer, his person, as he appears in circumstances and intentions. The problem with Nazi criminals was precisely that they voluntarily renounced all personal qualities, as if there was no one left to be punished or forgiven. They protested again and again, saying that they had never done anything on their own initiative, that they had no intention, good or bad, and that they just obeyed orders. In other words: the greatest evil perpetrated is the harm done by anyone, that is, by a human being who refuses to be a person. Within the conceptual framework of these considerations, we could say that the malefactor who refuses to think for himself about what he is doing and who, in retrospect, also refuses to think about what he does, that is, to come back and remember what he did (that is, that is, repentance), has really ceased to constitute itself as someone. Remaining stubbornly like no one, he proves to be inadequate for relationships with others who, good, bad or indifferent, are at least people ”(ARENDT, 2004, p.177).

Obeying an order simply because it is the Law, because it is the opinion of the majority or even adhering to an idea for possible social ascension, is simply renouncing the personhood, promoting the dissolution of the moral personality, freedom, conscience and own sense of responsibility.

Unfortunately, the spirit of the banality of evil manifests itself intensely in the contemporary era through political ideologies, the culture of messianic political flattery as well as blind connivance to government projects. The reflexive attitude must be promoted in favor of the search for Truth and the common good. As I said George Orwell, “What is really scary about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’, but that it undermines the concept of objective Truth.”

Anyway, the characters in Jojo Rabbit were a kind of allegory of the banality of evil, as they were extremely superficial and, even in the face of the greatest atrocities, played jokes and constantly repeated Nazi clichés. They even outsourced the guilt of immoral acts and never took responsibility for their own actions, since all immorality was exclusively the fault of the Jews. Jojo himself was a representative of this kind of evil, but with living with Elsa he was treading the path to redemption.

I believe that the central messages of the film are: the courage to think is political action par excellence; do not let a political ideology dominate your conscience and your being; do not give up the faculty of thinking; it is not an instrument in the hands of governments and political religions; do not become an archetype of the banality of evil.

Sometimes, we are tempted to fill our existential void with a kind of “political religion” that can lead to banal evil, however, we must remember that the human being is not reduced to merely being political, because the integrality of Being cannot be understood only from materialism, but from a worldview based on Truth and the holistic conception of man.

Because of his self-transcendence, man is a being in search of meaning. Deep down, it is dominated by a desire for meaning. However, nowadays this will is largely frustrated (…) When asked how to explain the advent of this existential vacuum, I take care to offer the following abbreviated formula: in contrast to the animal, instincts do not tell man what he has to do and, unlike the man of the past, the man of today no longer has the tradition to tell him what to do. Not knowing what you have or what you should do, many times you no longer know what you really want. So you just want what others do – conformism! Or just do what others want you to do – totalitarianism.

As Viktor Frankl would say


[1]ARENDT, Hannah. Origins of Totalitarianism: anti-Semitism, imperialism, totalitarianism. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2012

[2]RUSSO, Francisco. ADOROCINEMA CRITICS: Jojo Rabbit. Available at:

[3]MORAES, Gerson Leite de. Banal Evil and the difficult task of forgiveness. Revista Filosóficos Studies nº 17/2016 – electronic version – ISSN 2177 – 2967.

[4]ARENDT, Hannah. Liability and Judgment. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2004.