So there’s a lot less silly Hitler in this than I thought there’d be. Still pretty good, though.
Taika Waititi is one of the fun weirdos of modern comedic cinema. He broke into most of our hearts with What We Do in the Shadows, a 2014 New Zealand comedy revolving around vampires living in the modern world. Pretty much everybody else knows him from Thor: Ragnarok, the Marvel comedy that reinvigorated and reinvented the Norse-god character and sparked some fun back into the franchise as a whole. This year he’s popped out an entertaining, moving, and heartfelt tale about a fanatical young Nazi in 1940’s Berlin that is forced to come face to face with the idea his beliefs might be bunk. Oh, and his imaginary best friend is a slapstick version of Hitler that totally isn’t also a parody of anyone else.
Jojo Rabbit opens with our titluar character, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), getting absolutely pumped with imaginary Hitler (Taika Waititi) for a weekend at a Hitler Youth training camp. During this, he discovers that not only is he too sweet of a boy to slaughter anything innocent, but that the Germans are on the backfoot and about to lose the war. The camp is run, rather incompetently, by three figureheads – Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson), Finkel (Alfie Allen), and Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). The latter seems to be quite disillusioned with the Nazi ideals at this point, angered at having been sent home due to an injury and frustrated with the idea of training children instead of leading recruits. When Jojo is injured in an accident, a hilarious bit of silliness involving a grenade, the boy is scarred and both he and the leaders of the camp are sent home. Jojo continues to work with the three at the program as a volunteer, living with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), and discovers that she’s hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the wall.
Still with me? Good, because this is just the setup.
Waititi lingers on a lot of things here, but his main focus is on the indoctrination of children and that even though they might be brought up on a certain set of ideals they may not understand or even truly believe them. A lot of complicated conceptual cookery is on this stove and it boils down into a delightful stew of ideals that don’t always completely land but make their impact just the same. See, good people exist in all groups. While we tend to paint the Nazi’s of WWII into a box, many of them were secretly attempting to undermine Hitler’s regime and aiding their Jewish friends out of love or just a sense of humanity. It’s telling that the plot of Claus von Stauffenberg is mentioned in the film as it reminds us that not only were people undermining the Reich but actively trying to assassinate its leader. The desperation of brainwashing youth into hate-culture shows a weakness in the underbelly of organizations like this and leaves an opening to teach the youth in that group about humanity, whatever form it may take.
Rosie shows this by being…maybe the best mom ever? She’s sweet, charming, and doing everything she can to try to guide her son without putting him in danger or demanding that he change. She’s uncomfortable with his fanaticism but, rather than forbid it or undermine it, she merely plays along and tries to still help him be a kind character all the way through. There are shades of this in Klenzendorf as well, his care for Jojo growing throughout the film. I want to note right off the bat that the adults in this film are fantastic but there’s something magical in the performances of Rockwell and Johansson that took my breath away. Each of their final moments onscreen is beautiful and caring, serving the audience with just how wonderful they each can be.
The real stars of the show, however, are Davis and McKenzie. The trailers would have you think that imaginary Hitler is more prominent in this but he’s actually just a background character, there to serve as the devil on Jojo’s shoulder when he wants to make steps forward. This is a developmental challenge that is sweet and real.
I will fault the film for using some easy means to create Jojo’s development. There are some moments where I think “you know, that’s kind of…well it works but it would also work without it,” and that’s about the only knock against the film I have. I won’t spoil anything, I’ll let you figure it out for yourself.
This is probably the first comedy in a while that has brought me to tears and that’s because it’s only masquerading as a hilarious romp. What it truly turns out to be is a dramatic argument against hatred, fascism, mindlessly buying into propaganda, government-controlled media, and indoctrination. Two separate moments brought me to tears, and not because I was laughing. I did laugh, though, sometimes only moments later. That kind of back-and-forth narrative bric a brac should give the viewer whiplash but instead it works to create an atmosphere of tension, dread, passion, pain, and love while allowing us laughter simply because we need to catch our breath. Jojo Rabbit is a wonderful film, reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (if the parallelist auteur decided to dabble in anti-fascist messages more blatantly), and it’s an absolute must-see.