“Jojo Rabbit” is an introspective cinematic pearl with Oscar-worthy performances
Taika Waititi’s latest film Jojo Rabbit is the newest addition to his irreverent and lovely collection of works including Boy (2010), What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), and his Hollywood debut Thor: Ragnarok (2017). If you haven’t seen the first three films I highly suggest a watch party: you will laugh, cry, and come away from the experience recalling many zany lines and dance scenes with joy. The latter movie was Waititi’s first feature film to take place outside of his native country of New Zealand and launched him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, giving his kooky style and slapstick comedy a world stage. Following Waititi’s celebrated success for the bold and refreshing action of Ragnarok, Waititi’s film Jojo Rabbit, while not perfect, is still an absolute gem to behold and a delight to experience.
Waititi writes elegant, passionate, and hilarious dialogue for his layered and complex characters, which provides brilliant actors like Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, and young leading man Roman Griffin Davis with plenty of depth and several heartfelt emotional arcs. Davis is absolutely adorable as the titular Jojo, a young boy in Nazi Germany at the waning end of World War II. Jojo is the perfect symbol of targeted propaganda— he is a young, impressionable, and sensitive outcast from the hyper masculine boys around him, and accepts what he has been told by the media of the Third Reich without question. Jojo’s father is absent, with rumors of having deserted while fighting in the army, so Jojo desperately wants to make up for any perceived cowardice and find male role models wherever he can. Even the Nazi adults around him acknowledge this ridiculous faith, as one gestapo investigator (a welcome Stephen Merchant) says, “I wish more of our young boys had your blind phoneticism.”
The introduction of Jojo and the first two-thirds of the film are hysterical and there are many, many moments of comedic gold. He is a cute young boy with an admiration for Adolf Hitler— the superhero of his time, so much so that Hitler is his imaginary friend (played hilariously by Taika Waititi, who is Maori and of Jewish heritage). This ironic portrayal is dripping in satire, and as the film progresses, we see how Jojo uses Hitler and the German state as filler for a life of loneliness. He has one friend, Yorki, another outcast, who gets hilariously drafted into the war effort despite being 11 years old.
After Jojo can’t participate in Hitler Youth due to a grenade accident that leaves him with reduced usage of his leg and facial scars, he will do anything to feel accepted and to break his inner mantra of self-hatred and self-doubt, which includes admiring a dictator.
Jojo has some solace in his mother Rosie, portrayed beautifully by Scarlett Johansson. Rosie does not let her son dwell on his scars and encourages him to see the fun and beauty in the world. She disagrees with the Third Reich and feels safer and safer saying so as the war nears its end and Germany (despite the perfect, pretty facade) is crumbling from all sides. But Rosie has a son who worships the regime, and is left with a child she loves dearly but does not like very much. Johansson dazzles on screen portraying this sweet-hearted but powerful character, a “mother lion,” as Rosie says. It is heartbreakingly evident with the tears of restraint in her eyes and the humor in her voice that she wishes she could tell her son more but can’t. There is no doubt Johansson will receive Oscar buzz for her role, and such accolades would be well deserved.
There are no spoilers in revealing that Rosie is secretly hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house, as this is revealed in the trailers, and the film needs this element of tension in order to create a plot. Jojo is left, of course, to wrestle with the knowledge that Jews aren’t actually horned creatures, and that his mother is going against the government. Although it is evident where Jojo’s journey will take him, the conversations that Jojo and Elsa, the girl, have together are surprising and riveting. Each exchange is loaded with harsh language and threats but with warmth beating underneath. It is fascinating to see when Elsa chooses to lash out at Jojo’s racism and how Jojo reacts to the way she toys with his blind ignorance.
The other major figure in Jojo’s life is Captain Klenzendorf, portrayed perfectly by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell is one of the few actors who I can emphatically say has perfect performances. His Oscar-winning role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was life-changing for me as a viewer, akin to Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa. Based on the trailer for Jojo Rabbit I expected to only get brief moments of Rockwell on screen. To my delight, his character as the captain of a Hitler Youth Camp is given ample screen time and witty, striking dialogue that continues throughout the course of the film.
Klenzendorf’s relationship with Jojo evolves in tangent with Klenzendorf’s relationship with the viewer as well. Without giving away any spoilers, his character provides some of the most heartwarming and surprising moments on screen, and finally gave me a chance to catch my breath as my emotions struggled to keep up with the film’s resolution. There is a shot of Klenzendorf that will remain seared into my brain for months to come, bringing tears to my eyes and a smile to my face.
Waititi was met with mixed reactions to the combination of comedy, satire, and drama that he concotes with Jojo Rabbit. Genre can too often be a box of constraints, and Jojo Rabbit is best viewed through the lense of no genre, and with an expectation for pure enjoyment. It is a rare jewel of filmmaking that sparkles and shines. In the undoubtedly sad moments of the film I was left wondering how to feel, and this sensation was evident in the theater when, during a moment of absolute sincere devastation, an audience member burst out an awkward laugh. It was clear then that because there had been so many moments of laughter previously we were left wondering how to handle this new development. Perhaps this is Waititi’s point however; do we really know when to laugh in real life? Do we know when to laugh at the ridiculousness of an event or belief? At a government? At a political view? Do we know when to laugh at each other? Ourselves? At the movies? Maybe not. There were moments where I wanted to cry, but the film would not let me. Rather than using deep, grand, romantic language to encapsulate a sappy moment, the film instead pushes you, and Jojo, to get up, dust yourself off, and keep moving forward. It is jarring but strangely comforting to see this rare reaction to tragedy, and was a privilege to watch.
Nonetheless, there were a few other plot threads that did not add up. Jojo’s father’s absence felt like an unnecessary addition, hinting at a larger narrative but not one that we, the audience following Jojo, are privy to. Jojo also had an older sister who recently died, although her cause of death is never discussed and neither Jojo nor Rosie behave as though they are grieving. Her existence is important for the plot involving Elsa, but not much else, and therefore feels unexplored.
Jojo Rabbit is special, however, in how many things it gives the audience to ruminate. Animals are a constant motif throughout the film (much as they were in Nazi propaganda), representing freedom, innocence, and beauty, and the imaginary friend of Hitler slowly looses its charm brilliantly. At first, Waititi’s Hitler is the most unique and surprising element of the script, and so each scene with him feels ripe with possibilities. However, as the film progresses and we grow attached to the characters of Jojo, Klenzendorf, Rosie, and Elsa, we grow tired and annoyed by Hitler’s presence, much like Jojo, and would rather focus on the people in front of us who are being directly affected by his policies and rhetoric.
I could talk more about the political climate of 2019 and its similarities to war-torn Germany, where children are subjected to racist language and violence, and could speak more about how strange it felt to develop sympathy for Klenzendorf, a Nazi captain. I could talk more about the stylish and colorful set design, the brilliant soundtrack featuring The Beatles and David Bowie , and the moments of heartbreaking cruelty when we see Jojo’s thoughts about his scarred appearance uttered through Hitler’s mouth without pause, but instead I want to encourage every reader to go experience this film. Go to the theater, if you can, and discover when you want to laugh and when you don’t. Maybe you will learn a thing or two about when to laugh at one of Trump’s tweets and when to be concerned.