Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Jojo Rabbit sounds like an extremely hard sell on paper. It is the story of a 10 year-old boy in Nazi Germany, trained to be dedicated to the cause, who finds a Jewish girl hiding in his house. Also, his imaginary friend is Adolph Hitler. Oh, did I mention it is a comedy? This could not have been an easy movie for writer/director/costar Taika Waititi to pitch (he plays the imaginary Hitler). Just the idea of a Nazi comedy is enough to cause concern. If not handled right, people would have been furious he would even have the nerve to make it (some probably are anyway). Thankfully, he knew what he was doing. Jojo Rabbit is funny, yes, and occasionally absurd. However, though it makes light of the Nazis, it does not look away from the awful things they did. They are painted as neither sympathetic nor positive. It focuses on not just their treatment of Jews, but also how they manipulated and deceived children like Jojo to produce more loyal soldiers. Incredibly, horror and ridiculousness, tragedy and laughter, combine to create something surprisingly moving. This movie is a wonder.
Jojo lives with his loving, frequently absent, mother and desperately wants to defend Germany from their enemies. One day, he hears noises upstairs and finds a teenage Jewish girl. Terrified of what would happen if anyone found out, Jojo is forced to make difficult decisions that will forever change his life.
This story does not sound comic, yet Jojo Rabbit (loosely adapted from the 2004 novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens) is quite funny. It satirizes Nazi propaganda and the way they used kids in the war effort. Oddly, though it exaggerates in its characterizations, it never stops being believable. Therefore, its subject is never softened, even while we laugh. Jojo (played fantastically by the debuting Roman Griffin Davis) is a lovable kid, an innocent with no idea how evil the things he says are. His earnestness is funny. It is also sad because he could not possibly comprehend how hurtful his ignorance is. His mother (played with exquisite heart and delicacy by Scarlett Johansson) does understand, but is careful not to completely burst her son’s bubble. She has no loyalty to the Nazi party and is hopeful the war will end soon. She does her best to care for Jojo, even as she disagrees with his values. Johansson’s performance is emblematic of the tonal balancing act Waititi achieves throughout the whole movie: sweet, yet worried. Smiling, yet angry.
The other significant role goes to Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, the Jew. McKenzie gave one of my favorite performances of 2018 in Leave No Trace, playing a young woman taking care of her father as they live illegally in a state park. She showed a maturity belying her years (she is currently 19). Here she is also portraying a young woman living somewhere she is not supposed to be and required to be much wiser due to her circumstances. She is mad at people like Jojo, who blindly follow their hateful leaders. She pities him too, because she knows it is not his fault. Their scenes together are shockingly subtle. She plays a lot of notes without spelling them out, creating someone more complex than merely a scared Jew. Mark my words: McKenzie will win an Oscar someday.
Though Jojo and Elsa are as different as could be, they are very similar. They both have had their lives destroyed by the Nazis and neither can possibly be free under their rule. Elsa’s life was derailed purely because she was born Jewish. She was forced from her home, before escaping into hiding. For Jojo, it is a little more complicated. He is not imprisoned or in obvious immediate danger. Yet, by filling his head with propaganda, they have eliminated his freedom. What each of them are experiencing is dreadful in its own way, even if only one of them is aware of it. Unfortunately, both of these things (persecution because of religion/gender/skin color and children being turned into soldiers) still exist in today’s world. It is depressing that a movie like Jojo Rabbit needs to be made, but it does.
According to Waititi, Jojo Rabbit (103 minutes, without the end credits) is an anti-hate satire. He invites us to laugh at the silliness of the doctrine of groups like the Nazis and to be horrified by what it compels them to do. Clearly, he expects us to see parallels with things going on in the present day. However, he lets us work that out for ourselves. Despite the fact that aspects of his production feel contemporary, the story is very much about that time. Part of the sadness I felt as I watched it came from thinking about how we as a people have not really evolved in the last 70 plus years.
Taika Waititi has made something that is somehow heartwarming and heartbreaking. In the end, his message seems to be: love, friendship, hope and bravery is what defeats hatred, not more hatred. He finds a way to generate humor while never trivializing what people like Elsa actually had to go through. As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I understand why some have been offended by it. Any attempt to find amusement from an event so terrible and so personal to many is going to anger some. It is a difficult concept to accept and not an easy watch. I am absolutely glad I did. This is one of the best movies of the year.
5 out of 5
Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo
Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa
Scarlett Johansson as Rosie
Taika Waititi as Adolf
Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf
Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm
Archie Yates as Yorki
Screenplay and Directed by Taika Waititi