Jojo Rabbit movie review: Taika Waititi’s Hitler film is a delightful and heartfelt surprise, filled with raucous energy
Jojo Rabbit is a blast. It’s filled with raucous energy, and it hits beats across the emotional spectrum with stunning precision.
castTaika Waititi, Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin Mckenzie, Scarlett Johansson
I’d be curious to sit down with whoever at Disney was in charge of marketing Jojo Rabbit. The film, in which Kiwi writer-director Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) plays an imaginary Hitler, reportedly made the family-friendly studio nervous after it was acquired with the rest of Fox Searchlight’s slate earlier this year. The posters began touting it as an “anti-hate satire” — a vague, almost apologetic phrase that sands down the film’s anti-white-supremacy edges — and the trailers made it seem like an extended comedy sketch that might overstay its welcome.
As it turns out, Jojo Rabbit isn’t really the film Disney was selling. The trailers are honest about the premise, sure — it’s about a young Nazi boy who finds a Jewish girl hiding out in his house — but they don’t quite capture the film’s tone or emotional scope.
I’d struggle to really call the film a “satire” at all, though its fantasy Hitler is certainly hilarious and bizarre. He speaks with modern affects at rapid-fire pace (and barely departs from Waititi’s New Zealand accent). If you’re familiar with the naturalistic, tongue-in-cheek cadence of Waititi’s characters, you’ll know what to expect; think Viago from What We Do in the Shadows, but more blood-thirsty. Waititi, who dons blue contact lenses for the role, is a filmmaker of Jewish and Māori descent, so he knows a thing or two about white supremacy. He certainly knows how to jab at its vulnerabilities; the hallmark of Kiwi comedy is deflation of grandeur, and what better target than Nazis?
The film’s soul, however, is that of a coming-of-age story. It’s also the kind of film Joker wishes it were: an incisive, empathetic, intimate portrait of isolation and the ways one’s traumas can be made to intersect with violence and ideology. It’s graceful, sweet and strange, and despite its twee exterior, it manages to stare social malaise right in the eye, giving it the kind of dressing-down that doesn’t simply preach to the choir.
Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is all of ten years old, but he’s excited to put on his Hitler Youth uniform and serve his country (and eventually, serve as Hitler’s personal guard). He’s a Nazi-in-training and a Hitler fanboy, and while his ludicrous proclamations about Jewish horns and mind-reading feel uncomfortably jagged (they’re meant to; some of these stereotypes somehow still prevail), it’s apparent from the get-go that young Jojo isn’t a monster, but a gullible, susceptible child, and a product of his environment. Hitler, the boy’s imaginary friend, struts around with all the pomp and circumstance of the real Adolf Hitler. He’s the Devil on Jojo’s shoulder, constantly reminding him of the tenets of Nazism to which he must adhere — but he’s also an extension of Jojo himself, so he’s wildly insecure.
At his small-town Hitler Youth camp, Jojo is taught by fed-up, one eyed war hero Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his compatriot Finkel (Alfie Allen), whose relationship seems more than friendly, but obviously cannot evolve under the circumstances. They’re joined by Rebel Wilson’s gossipy Fräulein Rahm, whose stories of friends and family being mind-controlled by Jews into alcoholism and other vices cut to the heart of Nazi propaganda, and of authoritarian propaganda in general: blame your problems on “the other.”
The scenes in the youth camp feel a lot like the recent works of Wes Anderson; the diorama feel and the frolicking, uniformed children can’t help but evoke Moonrise Kingdom, while the stiffness of movement and emotion (and, you know, the Nazis) feel ripped right out of The Grand Budapest Hotel. The major difference, however, is that while Anderson sugarcoats his stories — it’s not a knock against the man; The Grand Budapest Hotel is arguably his best work, and filtering Nazis through a children’s storybook aesthetic is part of its charm — Waititi doesn’t shy away from the real-world implications of Nazism, despite his initially whimsical tone. Comedy about Nazis is a challenge to pull off — even Mel Brooks’ The Producers used a layer of theatrical artifice to take them down a notch — but my only real complaint about Jojo Rabbit’s comedy is that the fat jokes feel kind of retrograde. As far as Nazism goes, Waititi tackles it head on, exposing it for the ridiculous façade it is — but he also makes sure to take it seriously.
Waititi occasionally breaks through the initial whimsy with brief but meaningful edits, each of which shifts the film’s perspective and offers a glimpse of uncertainty. The results vary from dryly comedic — trumpets bearing the S.S. flag are raised just as Rockwell’s Klenzendorf, who detests his job training Nazis, takes a swig of whiskey — to tragic, and almost disturbing. As the kids excitedly burn books in a bonfire, Waititi breaks from the childlike mayhem, shot from a distance, and cuts to a closeup of a scared, uncertain Jojo, who seems to recoil from the fiery ritual.
After being made fun of by Nazi teens for refusing to kill a rabbit, Jojo has a derisive nickname thrust upon him: “Jojo Rabbit.” In order to prove his mettle, Jojo — at the behest of imaginary Hitler — gets in over his head during a grenade-throwing exercise, and ends up with a leg injury and severe facial scarring. As someone ostensibly disabled, Jojo has now become an object of Nazi scorn. In what might be the film’s most difficult turn (portrayed with heartfelt gravitas by eleven-year-old Davis), ten-year-old Jojo begins to loathe his very existence.
As Jojo spends more time at home, with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) and out putting up propaganda posters for the Reich — a new job he takes on willingly, since he can no longer serve in battle — the film leaves behind the winking whimsy of the youth camp. Slowly but surely, the camera begins to discover the dark corners of Jojo’s world. As the film goes on, its clean, spacious settings, like Jojo’s poster-adorned bedroom, are traded in for spaces that feel dirtier, and more cramped. When Jojo discovers that his mother, a secret Nazi resister, has been harbouring a Jewish refugee, he finds the young girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hunched over in a dingy crawl-space behind a bedroom wall. Waititi shoots this discovery like a self-aware horror film, but the harsh conditions in which Elsa finds herself, for mere survival, are a stark contrast to the rest of Jojo’s warm, comfortable two-story home.
The film’s dramatic focus is how Jojo deals with this sprightly Jewish teen; he wrestles constantly between the Nazism he’s been taught and his own ingrained empathy (not to mention, an adorable boyhood crush). However, the film takes a definitively macabre turn when Jojo and his mother discover the bodies four dissenters hanged in a public square. Waititi presents this discovery in a rare moment of contemplative stillness. The silence is broken only by a brief dialogue exchange that illuminates both characters; “What did they do?” asks the innocent Jojo, to which his mother responds: “What they could.”
The jokes continue from that point on, including the occasional re-emergence of Jojo’s silly imaginary chum, but the idea of death begins to loom large over the proceedings. The first thing Jojo sees of one of the executed dissenters is her shoes, hanging just above his head. From that point on, each time Jojo’s mother enters a scene, she’s standing above him — on a platform, or some raised landing — and all he sees, and all we see, are her shoes, framed similarly. Should Jojo give in to his training and expose his mother, he knows what her fate will be.
Scarlett Johansson is revelatory as Rosie, a single mother barely keeping it together. She regales Jojo with stories of his long-absent father, a supposed war hero, and in a particularly touching scene, she smears soot on her face to make a beard. She puts on Jojo’s father’s uniform, playfully monologues as him, and enacts fantasy of what it would be like were the three of them still together. Rosie and Jojo share a playful camaraderie; she sways and dances whenever possible, and encourages Jojo to do the same. She also carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, balancing quiet acts of resistance with keeping up appearances — a job that includes not only keeping the lonely Jojo on the right path without revealing her true allegiance, but keeping hope alive for Elsa as well.
The young refugee Elsa is equally lonely, though she keeps her head above water by playing mischievous games with Jojo, leaning in to his expectations of superpowered Jews. She’s lived several lifetimes of pain, and yet, hasn’t really lived at all. A quiet scene between Rosie and Elsa in the crawl-space, in which Rosie tells the young girl of all the things she’ll get to do as a woman, is another highlight of the film. The question of whether they’ll even live to see that day hovers over both characters, but they refuse to put it into words. It’s one of a handful of scenes where Waititi presses pause on the momentum, and lends his focus to a pair of characters engaging in intimate, tender conversation.
When Rosie’s resistance activities yank her out of the film, Jojo is left to deal with Elsa’s potentially dangerous presence (and with his unrequited crush). The dynamic the two kids share is sweet and tragic all at once; Jojo has been taught to hate her the way he’s been taught to hate his own scars, but Elsa is also the only person who seems to truly accept him. She also sees through his ruse, and by proxy, the ruse of all frustrated young men whose isolation and self-hatred pushes them toward violent ideologies. “You're not a Nazi, Jojo,” she tells him. “You're a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”
Jojo’s only other friend is the delightful little Yorkie (Archie Yates), his Hitler Youth campmate. Yorkie and Jojo’s interactions make for particularly saccharine moments, but Yorkie is also just a susceptible ten-year old simply going through the motions. With Jojo’s father long gone and his mother now out of the picture, Elsa remains Jojo’s only moral compass — the other side to the imaginary Hitler coin. When war eventually comes to Jojo’s town, it’s brutal and bleak (the film refuses to lean away from the cold, violent imagery of World War II). There’s no joy in seeing the townspeople suffer for someone else’s ideas; the tragedy central to Jojo Rabbit is people being sucked in by the black hole of white supremacy, on both sides. Its victims are those whose bodies it destroys, and those whose souls it corrodes.
The film doesn’t really have a visible “bad guy” apart from the spectre of Nazism. The closest thing it has to an antagonist is Stephen Merchant as an investigating Gestapo agent, Captain Deertz, whose brief appearance goes from funny to intense fairly quickly. Deertz, who suspects Jojo’s mother of anti-national activities, arrives at his home with four other agents, all of whom greet Jojo and several other characters with individual, over-the-top “Heil Hitler” salutes, one by one. The phrase practically loses meaning through comedic repetition, which Waititi shoots in long, painfully awkward group shots. However, when Elsa is forced to blend in and heil the agents in return, the salute’s full ferocity returns, in a moment of contextual whiplash; the phrase carries immense pain for the young Jewish girl. The focus remains on Thomasin McKenzie’s face, and the film narrows in on the stakes of a young girl’s life, a young boy’s soul and, potentially, the soul of another Nazi character who attempts to make amends. The film isn’t forgiving of brutality, but it certainly empathises with regret.
Ultimately, Jojo Rabbit is a blast. It’s filled with raucous energy, and it hits beats across the emotional spectrum with stunning precision. It starts out a side-splitting comedy, before slowly revealing a tender tale of a scared young boy in a world much bigger than himself, torn between forces of hate and love, which he doesn’t even fully comprehend. It’s the work of a madman, taking aim at harmful ideologies by exposing their biggest recruitment tools: loneliness and insecurity. The film doesn’t so much use love to combat hate — rather, it uses love to combat the feeling of being unloved.
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