Jojo Rabbit looked so damn risky when I first started seeing trailers for it.
I mean, let’s be honest: World War II was eighty years ago. EIGHTY YEARS! That is by no mean insubstantial. World War II was as close to the Civil War as it is to the current day. Many of us won’t live to see an eightieth birthday; World War II was more than the average lifespan ago!
And yet… the idea of a comical, goofy, quasi-charming version of Adolph Hitler on the big screen, frolicking with and influencing a small child seemed a bit… “is this okay to laugh at?”. Jojo’s mere premise seemed like it had the capacity to turn people off, perhaps especially in our modern day where supposed Nazism is more prevalent than it has been in decades.
I don’t mean to imply anyone with two fully cooperating synapses would have thought that Jojo Rabbit might shine a positive light on the Nazi movement, but the idea of one of the most purely evil humans who has ever lived as a joyous imaginary friend could have rubbed folks the wrong way.
Luckily, Taika Waititi is a smart filmmaker with an abundance of heart, and Jojo Rabbit excelled because of his skills.
The story of Jojo Rabbit is that of a young boy in Nazi Germany in the waning days of the war. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is obsessed with the war effort and the Nazi movement, and he desperately wants top do his part to help out the Reich… just like his long-missing father is doing in Italy. His mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) humors him, but she outwardly despises the Nazis and what they stand for. Jojo and his friend Yorki (Alfie Allen) join a camp for children presided over by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). There it is revealed that while Jojo may approve of the fascist government’s goals, he actually has a soft heart and refuses to kill a bunny at the urging of some bullies (thus earning him his titular nickname). A terrible accident involving a grenade leaves Jojo disfigured and crippled, and while at home, he finds a terrible shame: his mother is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls.
And yes… all the while, Jojo is interacting with his imaginary friend, Hitler (played by Waititi).
Before I mostly gush about this film, I want to get one extremely petulant negative out of the way: the movie plays up Jojo’s accident, but it never seems to visually match what the characters are saying. Jojo has some light, badass scarring on his face, and he occasionally has a mild limp, but that’s it. We’re constantly told he’s in much worse shape than he actually seems to be, and I actually wish the make-up team did a better job on Davis. Not that this needs to be gory or anything, but… at least match what the script is telling us.
Oh, and I’ll be getting into SPOILERS, so… you are warned.
Speaking of Jojo’s injuries, this movie has a direly underrated moment that, out of a slew of touching and heart-wrenching scenes, impacted me the most. It’s an odd place to start, but it was what I focused on the most for some reason.
In a moment of depression, Jojo asks “Hitler” if the latter thinks he is ugly. The imaginary friend replies plainly and immediately, “yes”. It can come across as a laugh bit, but what it actually implies–Jojo telling himself unequivocally that he is a monster–is heartbreaking. Is he talking about his physical appearance but thinking about his own beliefs? Possibly. Either way, that moment gutted me.
Anyway, the theme of Jojo Rabbit is that of hope. It’s easy to take this away through the lens of Jojo’s evolving views on Elsa or in Elsa’s mere existence and survival in a dire situation, but you might not see it coming in the portrayal of Captain Klenzendorf. While he starts off as a comically full-of-himself war hero for the Nazi’s, Klenzendorf has two genuinely heroic moments in the movie’s second half. First, he discovers Elsa’s identity in front of the Gestapo but keeps it to himself. Later, and much more impactfully, he denies knowing Jojo after Allied Forces take their city. He spits on Jojo and calls him a Jew so that the Allies don’t punish him moments before the Captain and his forces are executed.
Between Klenzendorf and Rosie (and, you eventually find out, what Jojo’s father has actually been up to), the story isn’t afraid to point out that there very much were good people living under the Nazi regime. Some, like Rosie, were outwardly defiant and paid for it. Others, like Klenzendorf, may have been doing the wrong thing, but when the clouds were darkest, they still found it in them to be a hero. Even in the worst of times, there can still be hope.
And yep… I mentioned that Rosie pays for her acts. In the movie’s single biggest turning point–I have described Jojo Rabbit as a movie that is funny and charming until it isn’t–Jojo finds his mother hanged in the center of town. It’s brilliantly shot because Waititi controls himself and doesn’t resort to giving us the seemingly inevitable shot of her face; we simply see her feet at Jojo’s eye level.
The movie plays with you with its funny Hitler and Jojo’s adversarial-but-adorable relationship with Elsa to the point where you can forget what the backdrop is. And then… boom. Rosie’s feet. It comes out of nowhere in the very best way to shock the viewer into reality. By no means does the film lose its sense of humor after that moment, but the mood decidedly sharpens.
I somehow haven’t mentioned Davis or McKenzie enough here. They are extraordinary; Davis in particular. He is in… every (?) scene of the movie, and has to do a lot of work carrying the picture, but he is a billion percent up to the task. He’s a star in the making. He handles being the straight man to Waititi, funny with Johansson and McKenzie, and dramatic after the mood shift. It’s an impeccable performance. McKenzie is sympathetic and manages that substantial balance between powerful and vulnerable. Their chemistry in their scenes together is great.
I could meander on. Johansson is fantastic. Waititi is so damn humorous. Pretty much everything works here. If you haven’t seen it, get on rectifying that! It’s easily one of my top five movies of 2019.