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By Bethany Grey
My journey to motherhood began with a bang. The months following my daughter’s birth felt as if the ground was crumbling at my feet. I’d brought a newborn into a firestorm of political tension and racial injustice, only to be topped by a relentless global pandemic. The irresponsibility of my decision to conceive weighed heavy. I seemingly created life at the worst possible time. I was grateful for her, yes, but was that selfish? My once prided ability to conjure optimism was squashed by 24-hour news cycles and a disbelief of how the winds within my country had changed. If I was finding the constant discord between my neighbors exhausting, how could I teach my daughter to cope?
Taking a cue from Rosie Betzler, the charming mother in the comedic-satire, Jojo Rabbit, I decided to do what I could. I decided to love.
Rosie believes love is the strongest thing in the world. She says so while consoling her heart-sick son, Jojo, as he grapples with the crushing emotions of his first experience with unrequited affection. Her sincere proclamation is met with rebuttal. A disgruntled Jojo refuses to accept it, rationalizing that metal, dynamite, and of course muscle is far superior in strength. But Rosie trusts this belief, and time and time again wields love like a superpower.
Rosie welcomes battered soldiers returning home from a war she disapproves of by encouraging them to “kiss your mothers.” She defiantly dances atop a stone wall to show God her gratitude for life, despite having every reason not to. And when her beloved son’s moral compass veers from its directed path, she continues to love him unconditionally, refusing to lose hope. Rosie is proof that a mother’s love is the glue that holds a community together, even when it’s tearing at the seams.
Rosie’s hardships began long before the movie takes off. It’s quickly pieced together that she’s a single mother whose husband’s whereabouts are unknown (later being revealed he’s fighting with the Nazi resistance from abroad). Even more tragic, her first-born daughter passed away from influenza, meaning she endured a parent’s worst nightmare before the threat of Nazism took hold. The plot picks up with her only remaining family member, her beloved Jojo, indoctrinated with extreme nationalism, an ideal she strongly opposes. And yet, her vibrant nature remains intact. Rosie Betzler is a Bohemian spirit born amongst the rise of the vile German Reich, but she refuses to let it dull her light.
This is not to say she’s a proprietor of toxic positivity. In fact, the most poignant moments of the film give a glimpse into the sadness behind her eyes. The camera lingers when the gaze appears. It’s wistful, a tell-tale sign her thoughts are in the past. To where we can only assume. Perhaps she’s being twirled by her husband in a Parisian nightclub, as is reenacted over dinner, or taking up a lover then making them suffer, as she hints to Elsa, a Jewish girl she’s given refuge. Clues of former romantic escapades are gradually revealed to give insight into an impassioned life before becoming Jojo’s mother, surely when her unwavering convictions first formed.
These convictions are what I appreciate most about Rosie. She upholds a dedication to creativity, treating it as a higher ideal. With quick-wit and cutting fashion she brings a magic to Jojo’s short existence that society fails to provide, living as if the earth is pregnant with it, ready to pop when the schismatic nonsense stops. Rosie keeps Jojo’s heart open. She understands that in time, even if she won’t see it through, the collective desire to love will overcome an appetite for war, and when it does, he’ll be ready to accept it.
There are moments these convictions are tested, suggesting that despite her commitment to anti-fascism her loyalty will always reside with Jojo. It is in these moments her complexity shows, and as a mother, I relate the most. When she brings a plate of bread and cheese to Elsa, who sits quietly in a dark room, she’s concerned Jojo is wise to the secret of her stow away. “You have to be more quiet,” she insists, fearing Jojo will inform the Gestapo. “If I have to choose between you and my son…” Then silence. Her pause says it all, insinuating the winner.
In an earlier scene, after Jojo’s face-disforming grenade-accident, Rosie escorts him to the Hitler Youth camp where she’s greeted by Captain Klenzendorf. After a swift knee to Klenzendorf’s genitals she sternly demands that Jojo “has a job and feels included.” Rosie later admits to Elsa that she allows Jojo’s involvement in the camp to distract him, but I can’t help but hear the sincerity in her request. Like any parent she cares for his happiness, even when it’s at odds with her own. Rosie continually places love above animosity when it comes to Jojo, biting her tongue rather than straining their bond.
But ultimately, Rosie’s humanitarian efforts leave Jojo orphaned. Her heart-wrenching death conjures a whirlwind of emotions in me that peel away in layers. First is despair - grief over a young boy’s loss, and the setback for the greater good. Next is anger - rage swells within me when thinking of the real-life murders that inspired the film. But then, an unexpected feeling. My anger turns toward Rosie. Seeing a crying Jojo helplessly hug her dangling legs, clinging to the shoes we’ve come to recognize, I couldn’t help but feel she’d been careless with her greatest responsibility - motherhood. But was this feeling justified? I sat with it, then after some thought, called out my hypocrisy.
In addition to victim blaming, I shamed Rosie for the very traits I once applauded. I wrongly held her to a higher standard simply for having given birth. My unrealistic expectation that she flawlessly upholds every identity – activist, mother, artist - blinded me to the fact that she never intended to leave her son. Her life was taken. And so, another identity was added to Rosie’s long list – a teacher.
In my experience, motherhood is a cosmic shift. From the second my daughter’s head found my chest she dominated my thoughts. My life split into “before” and “after” baby, and never the two shall meet. But is that necessary? Becoming a mother shouldn’t require sacrificing our prior ideals, instead, it’s calling upon those ideals when the circumstances aren’t perfect (because they won’t be). Rosie Betzler lived with integrity, always choosing to love. She did her best. As will I.
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