dir: Taika Waititi
I know that there are a lot of people for whom stories and movies like this are too much, that it’s disrespectful to those who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, that it minimises the sheer enormity of what happened. Similar criticisms were aimed at Roberto Benigni for making Life is Beautiful; a comedy about a Jewish father trying to playfully shield his son from the fact that they’re in a concentration camp.
How did they get away with that one? I also remember people bleating similar crap about the book and the film of The Book Thief, which also was seen as not treating the Holocaust with enough reverence, or centring the narrative on non-Jewish characters at the expense of the worst affected by the genocide.
And here, in Jojo Rabbit, a ten-year-old boy has Hitler as his best, imaginary friend, and wants to do nothing more than make his Fuhrer proud by killing Jews.
If I walked into the offices of Fox Searchlight, and said any of the above, I’d probably not only get arrested, I’d get the shit kicked out of me in alley somewhere for good measure.
But I’m not Taika Waititi, so when he says it, people listen and take him seriously, and they think “this might work” and not “Security, get this bum out of here.”
Taika has been making his absurdist masterpieces for a while now, so I would hope that he and the people he works with have a good enough idea of how to balance the various elements one needs to in order to make something like this work. This isn’t, on the surface, that complicated a story – young boy indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda hates the Jews, but slowly learns to not hate at least one of them. We often see these kinds of stories with adult characters, and it’s a redemption story in those contexts. But Jojo, or Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) as he’s more commonly known, isn’t looking at redemption, he’s a kid who believes vile Nazi propaganda because he doesn’t know any better, and he doesn’t realise how close Germany is to losing the war. His path, since he’s only ten, is to realise some of the stuff he thought was true, isn’t.
It doesn’t help that he has his own personal Hitler telling him the Jews are subhuman devils. Now, I guess there are a number of ways that you could look at the Hitler moments in the flick: imaginary friend, bad conscience, the shadow self, imagined absent father, split personality in someone suffering from disassociation. Quite often, though, it’s just that they’re really funny. Taika himself plays the part (naturally), with all the subtlety and buffoonery you would expect, if not demand. He tends to voice the boy’s most outlandish beliefs and deepest fears, sometimes as a comfort to the lonely boy, sometimes only voicing his self-doubt.
He also eggs him on in his stupidest actions, like what transpires on the seemingly wholesome Hitler Youth weekend camp where Jojo is meant to be transformed into a master race warrior, and comes out more damaged than before. The title of the flick and self-designated nickname for Johannes comes from the older Hitler Youth scumbags teasing him about being a coward, and trying to force him to kill a rabbit. When he refuses and they kill it anyway, he is branded a coward, and a, um, rabbit. Hitler helps him rationalise the taunts and slights, and embrace the rabbit as his spirit animal. Which is great, but this new found confidence convinces Jojo to grab a hand grenade, throw it at a tree so that it bounces back towards him, with expected results.
So, Jojo, what do you know. Now he’s got a limp and some facial scars to remind him how pointless it is to try to impress Nazis. It requires a long convalescence, also giving him an excuse not to go to school. He hangs out more with a strange set of Nazis led by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who give him pointless tasks like putting up Nazi propaganda posters and collecting scrap metal for the war effort while dressed as a robot. But, and I have to warn you, Rebel Wilson is in this too, and, as per usual, she gets some of the flick’s most absurd lines. One example, when a list of proposed tasks is mentioned, it’s suggested that Jojo could be tasked to take the clones for a walk, with a two second shot of a bunch of perfectly Aryan children in a strange array, which made me laugh even though I couldn’t believe I’d just seen it or heard it.
You might think Jojo goes through this world as an orphan, but he actually has a mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) who despairs over her son’s fanatical beliefs, but loves him anyway. Maybe that’s why she never tells Jojo that Anne Frank is living in the secret compartment on the top floor.
Who? What? Well, no, it’s not the actual Anne Frank, but a girl called Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), and the first Jew Jojo has ever met. He is confused by her lack of horns, and the fact that she doesn’t hang from the ceiling to sleep. The cognitive dissonance is very strong with this poor boy now; he has absorbed a lot of crap about a group of people, but can’t reconcile it with the reality.
What to do, what to do. Rosie, the mum, hid the girl to save her, and also because she was a friend of her daughter’s, since dearly departed independent of the war. Elsa resents the way the boy speaks of her and her people, and decides to lean in to the worst stereotypes the boy has absorbed, spinning for him all sorts of nonsense about what “the Jews” all collectively do.
But she also tells him about a Jewish boy, Nathan, who pledged his love to her, and who she hopes to marry when they meet again in Paris one day when the war is over. Of course Jojo hates Nathan now, with a passion, but without knowing at all why.
We know why. Okay, so for a film that sounds like it’s serious and bonkers, the hardest tightrope walking balancing act is between treating the serious bits seriously, but not letting it get too serious, but also not have the comedic / bonkers bits minimise the awfulness of some of the stuff that happens. The threat to Elsa and to Jojo and his mum also has to be foremost in their minds, and to be reminded of that they have the very polite Gestapo visit for a snap inspection. It’s starts off like a Monty Python sketch, and only gets more dangerous over time.
It turns out they can trust one person at least amidst all the Nazis, who might have his own reasons for wanting to protect like-minded individuals, because when Elsa poses as Jojo’s older sister, it shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s interesting, and a tad problematic, that a certain character, who is shown designing outrageous ceremonial uniforms and nearly kissing his second-in-command (Alfie Allen, who’ll always be poor despicable Theron Greyjoy from Game of Thrones to me), becomes the lynchpin by which a lot of people in this flick survive.
I have no problem with the “at least there were a couple of decent people amongst the Nazis” trope, because virtually every story (and this is complete fiction: no-one’s claiming this is based on a true story) depends on at least one of the evil occupiers / oppressors being slightly less so, as if to say there’s hope even for the most hardcore white supremacists / Tory voters etc. But I’m not sure how putting him in the closet really helped the narrative (not that he’s not great in this like in most things, Sam Rockwell I mean).
Not that I’m complaining. Towards the end of the film it really leans in to the absurdity of war in a way that looks too comedic to be taken seriously, and it could be another element that takes people out of the flick due to how brutally the tone has to shift, from extreme tragedy to comical hijinks and back again. There’s a scene where a bunch of elderly grandmothers are being trained on how to use rocket launchers, or small children Jojo’s age carrying weapons way too big and heavy for them, accidentally blowing buildings up.
And then of course there is the final confrontation that occurs between Hitler and Jojo, just like in the race to Berlin by the American and Russian forces. The war is lost, Hitler is terrible and frantic, and Jojo is forced to decide whether he’s going to reject the Fuhrer who lives inside his head and rejoin the world of decent folk, or whether he listens to Hitler, dooms Elsa, and damns himself to a fate not dissimilar to what the accomplished watercolourist and vegetarian experienced.
Maybe it’s too light-hearted. Maybe it’s too absurd, seen as it is from the perspective of a 10-year-old boy who knows little of the world other than what he has absorbed from the worst people around him. All I know is that it worked for me, and it’s one of the rare occasions where a period piece filled with anachronistic images, dialogue and references didn’t bug the hell out of me.
It really gets by on the strength of the main performances, being the work of the two youngest here, Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie. He has to carry almost every scene on his tiny shoulders, and he does a remarkable job. McKenzie is great too, bringing the same kind of wariness and soulfulness that she brought to another great film I saw recently called Leave No Trace, as the daughter of a damaged man wanting to live off the grid. She’s great, they’re both great and I look forward to seeing them in their future endeavours, assuming of course that there continues to be a cinema industry for actual people, and that everything isn’t just CGI going forward.
Taika is wonderful as one of the worst murderers of human beings in human history. He doesn’t and can’t play it as the actual Fuhrer of course, he aims more for Chaplinesque Great Dictator rather than Bruno Ganz’s more realistic Hitler in Downfall, he of the many memes complaining about England getting into the World Cup or the state of the property market.
Most of his great work is in keeping this tiny boat afloat, on a cruel sea, leaning in to the absurdity, but making sure that the real focus is on the even tinier heart and mind of a lost little boy, who has a chance to grow into a better person if he can get over being so selfish. It’s a story as old as time, but well told. Well, it’s crazily told, but well done all the same.
As a way of taunting Elsa, towards the beginning of their time together, he writes a pretend letter to Elsa from Nathan, saying that she’s ugly and he doesn’t love her any more. Does Jojo do this out of jealousy, or because the girl has mocked him, humiliated him and easily taken two knives off him? When she seems deeply upset, he writes another letter taking back what he said, and reassuring her that she’s all right. Now, we know she isn’t dumb enough to think they’re really letters from Nathan, because how would he even know where to send her letters?
This fiction continues up to the end of the war, where Jojo has to decide whether to even tell her if the war is over, or continue to keep her in captivity. Of course the moment of conscience would have to build up to that, but I think he’s going to have to kill the Hitler inside before he can bring himself to do it.
I loved it, fun for the whole family, if, like mine, it’s a fairly demented family to begin with.
8 times everyone should take the time to yell “Fuck off, Hitler!” at least once a day out of 10
“There are no weak Jews. I am descended from those who wrestle angels and kill giants. We were chosen by God. You were chosen by a fat man with greasy hair and half a moustache.” – these are proven facts – Jojo Rabbit