Acts of violence, violation, and corruption—this is what the world looks like.
“When will it end?” you wonder. It probably never will. “Has the world always
been like this?” Sadly, the answer is yes. But what makes Taika Waititi’s Jojo
Rabbit a must-see is because it’s so pointedly relevant to what’s going on in
the world at this moment.
Drawing on his own experiences with prejudice growing up Jewish, writer-director
Waititi makes a powerful and humorous satire of Nazi culture, a statement
against hate, and a look at the absurdity of violence.
Hate wasn’t more so a part of one’s psyche than with the Germans during WWII.
Jojo Rabbit examines this society gone mad through the eyes of a child. We are
first introduced to Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) as he looks at himself in
the mirror wearing his new Hitler Youth uniform. With his blonde hair and blue
eyes, he describes himself as “a shiny example of shiny perfection.”
Based on Christine Leunens’ novel, Caging Skies, the film takes place in a
little town at the tail end of the war. The town is under Nazi rule and Jojo
aspires to be one. At 10-years-old, we had posters of our favorite bands and
celebrities on our walls, but Jojo has Nazi propaganda, images of Hitler, and
Swastikas. Like many children in Germany during WWII, he’s easily influenced and
gullible, and he has been fed lies and false images of Jews and the opposing
Allies. As a Hitler Youth, he feels he can finally do something important to
help the war effort, and especially, to help protect his single mom, Rosie (Scarlett
Jojo soon learns, though, that killing isn’t in his nature when he refuses to
kill a rabbit, hence earning him his nickname. Throughout the film, he seeks
advice from his imaginary friend who soothes his insecurities. This imaginary
friend just happens to be a clownish caricature of the Führer himself (played by
Waititi). Hitler is a replacement father figure of sorts for Jojo, constantly
drilling toxic ideas of anti-Semitism in his head. This hateful belief system
soon unravels when Jojo discovers that his mother has been hiding a girl in
their house, a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). As Jojo learns more
about this mysterious new guest, we see a transformation in him as Elsa strips
away his hateful beliefs. The story then shifts into a heartwarming tale of
love, acceptance, and hope.
Through the young Jojo Betzler, Waititi re-visits this dark time in history with
a fresh lens and sharply funny script. This parody of WWII perfectly balances
humor and sincerity as it touches on both the heartbreaking events of the war,
while also providing catharsis to laugh at the idiocy of the regime. Waititi
knows where the comedy starts and where it ends. Getting to laugh at the
absurdity of violence, especially under the misguided principles of corrupt
rulers, is refreshing. By speaking of the idiotic falsities spread through Nazi
propaganda, it makes this the perfect film for these times as we ourselves are
fed lies about the other every day. Prejudice and racism caused by a Western,
Christian belief system is ever-present. “It’s illegal for Nazis and Jews to
hang out like we do,” Jojo says to Elsa. Through the growth of a friendship
that’s seen as criminal, Jojo Rabbit delivers a message of trust, understanding
and open-mindedness, three things we could use more of.
It helps of course that Waititi himself plays Der Fuhrer a bit like Mike Myers'
Dr. Evil, only with a push-broom mustache, but it's also very smart to make
Hitler himself the main comedic accessory -- along with Stephen Merchant's
grinning SS agent Deertz -- allowing the other, more serious characters room to
breathe. He doesn't play Hitler anything as he really was, but as he might have
been imagined by a young, terribly naive German boy with a good heart. Jojo
isn't any kind of ideologue, as Elsa explains to him, he's just a "10-year-old
kid who likes dressing in a fun uniform and wants to be part of a club."
Waititi’s character is juxtaposed by the standout of the film: Scarlett
Johansson’s Rosie Betzler. As Jojo’s mother, she’s trying to rid her son of a
mind clouded by hate because she hates both violence and war. While the film
follows Jojo, his mother Rosie feels like the beating heart of the film. She’s
the most important person in Jojo’s life. She provides the light that is missing
when Jojo goes outside to face a darker reality. She teases, she jokes, she
dances. Rosie is Johansson’s best role in years (apart from Marriage Story which
I haven't seen yet). She’s sweet, funny, and emotionally stirring as a mother
trying her best to keep an environment of love and hope unbroken.
A leading role in a bold production such as this wouldn’t be an easy task for
just any newcomer, but Davis surprises. He’s absolutely adorable and perfectly
captures the profound transformation Jojo goes through in the film, with the
right mix of emotions for a young boy coming of age. McKenzie is feisty as the
Jewish girl, Elsa, that Jojo’s mother saves from the Reich. McKenzie gave a
breakthrough performance in last year’s Leave No Trace, and she once again
excels in a role full of mystery, humanity, and strength. Elsa is resilient, but
also has a vulnerability to her and the character provides that contrasting view
of the war that leads to Jojo Rabbit’s sincere tone.
Rounding out the cast is Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf, the head of the
Hitler Youth training camp, and Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm, a Hitler Youth
instructor. Both have their share of comic relief, with Wilson getting the best
one-liners, but Rockwell comes away with a bigger role in the film and also in
Jojo’s life as a parental figure. And it wouldn’t be right to neglect to mention
Archie Yates as Jojo’s best friend Yorki. He’s a cutest kid, and his scenes with
Jojo are some of the best in the entire film, getting the most “awwws” from the
“Violence, what is it good for?” This is the question Jojo Rabbit essentially
asks. It’s the perfect film for today as it demonstrates how foolish violence is
and how laughable misguided and idiotic beliefs can be. We’re still living in a
society gone mad, but there’s hope that hate can be overcome.