Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

!spoilers spoilers spoilers spoilers!

“Love is the strongest thing in the world.”

My .02? This movie should only be divisive if you go in expecting a searing satire of Nazism. This is not an ire-infused, skewering take-down of Hitler’s totalitarian regime & if you are anticipating that, then you’ll likely find this experience baffling & frustrating. To put it bluntly, Jojo Rabbit is not about hate, but the love that exists in spite of it. It’s about the revolutionary act of being kind in the face of evil. It’s about listening to your heart when the calamitous roar outside deafens. It’s about utilizing one’s moral compass to navigate a world gone mad. This isn’t a film about the many, but the few. It’s about those who “did what they could” even when the costs & stakes were unspeakably high. The point isn’t to devote attention to the millions whose souls went black, but on those still emanating light, those who shone brighter in the dark, those who pushed-back, who rebelled in secret, who risked all to save even one. Lady Gaga would likely call them the most exemplary example of a “kindness punk” and I’m inclined to agree. In times of horror and hellfire, in times of crisis and chaos, in times where malevolence reigns supreme…goodness will sprout & heroes will rise.
ELSA: “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a 10 year
old kid who ‘likes’ Swastikas and ‘likes’
dressing up in a funny uniform and wants
to be part of a club. But you’re not one
of them. Not you.”
Let me tell you a quick story: I went to college at Texas A&M University, which The Princeton Review has often labeled as the most conservative public university in America. It’s a school with military ties & deeply rooted traditions. Many consider it paramount that this history be preserved, protected and passed on, so prior to entering one’s freshman year, it’s advised that students partake in a 4-day orientation called Fish Camp. It’s regarded as every Aggie’s “first tradition.” I didn’t want to go, but my mom insisted, and, to this day, it remains one of my least favorite memories. It was everything I’d expected, which meant it was everything I’d feared. Thankfully, I stumbled upon another student who hated cultish brainwashing activities as much as I did. We managed to skip a lot of events deemed “mandatory,” (what rebels!) but those that we did choose to attend offered a fascinating glimpse at the indoctrination process, replete with chanting in unison, learning “yells,” drilling “core values” into these young, malleable minds. Looking around, I could see eyes glazing over as individual characteristics blurred into sameness, maroon & white pumped into their veins, any & all uniqueness stripped away. The goal was to propagandize and convert several thousand teenagers into a singular unit and, honestly, it proved a resounding success (myself, obviously, excluded). There are exceptions to every rule, but the overwhelming majority of kids yearn to belong to something they perceive as bigger than themselves–they seek respect & inclusion, they crave community & a sense of importance. Most are itching to put on a uniform, to don an insignia, adopt a mascot, and immerse themselves into a sea of like-minded souls. We are tribal creatures & pride ourselves on making contributions to our packs in whatever way we can. We paint our faces, promote & proselytize, plaster our walls with symbols & signs, cheer, scream and yell for “our team.” Our identity-crazed instincts can’t help but twist everything into an “us vs. them” scenario. It can be helpful, fruitful or just a game…but, there comes a point where it stops being fun, where it stops being healthy, and starts getting dangerous. You ever think about why young people, particularly men, join ISIS? It’s because they want their lives to have purpose & meaning: to feel powerful & productive, to be viewed as a valued member of a group, to be heralded as valiant & brave….to be seen, to be heard, to be appreciated. Nazism was no different. In our feisty little protagonist’s case, he had never known a Germany without the Third Reich. He was born into a fascist state, having no context of what came before, of why they fought, or of who the enemy truly was. The only country he knew, his homeland, effectively sought to fill his head with disinformation & maliciously crafted lies; spoon-feeding antisemitism through various art mediums & advertisements. The voice of the charismatically gifted orator, der Führer, piped into his skull from day 1. A steady stream of blind hate masquerading as honest insight, of demons disguised as saviors. This was his normal. This was his world. He trusted his leaders to lead, committing no sin beyond believing the words that they said, the deceit that they sold. Jojo might have been a member of the Hitler Youth, but he wasn’t a monster. He was an impressionable young child whose mendacious government failed him; wholly let-down by those who chose fear, who chose silence, who chose antipathy, who chose greed, who chose power. The truth is, he simply didn’t know any better. From his age-appropriately naive perspective, he had both feet firmly planted on the right side of history, aligning himself with the good guys. He was a kid, doing what he thought was right, playing the role of a soldier, protecting his fellow Aryan brothers & sisters from the depraved, dangerous Jews (or so he’d been taught). How could he have known anything to the contrary? His mother saw the virulent, odious genocidal Party for what it was and refused to sit idly by while innocents were slaughtered en masse. She was living a double life, keeping up appearances when necessary, but refusing to look the other way, refusing to settle for complicity. So, she fucking did what she could. Each of her quietly defiant acts & locally organized resistance movements were all enormous risks with no guarantee of success, no promise of a payoff, no assurance of even a tomorrow. No truer example of pure selflessness & undiluted courage exists. But, that commitment came with a price–her dedication to the Free-Germany cause meant that she was in constant danger & the only way to ensure that Jojo would stay safe, was to keep him in the dark about her true allegiance. And it was evident that this alone required a herculean effort. Their bond was special, airtight in so many ways, so this undercurrent of deception hurt them both. Essential, yes, but not without it’s consequences.

Listen, I know that I’m talking about these characters as though they’re flesh & blood rather than fictitious, but, the truth is….that’s how effective these actors were at selling that relationship. The easy chemistry between Scarlett Johansson’s Rosie and Roman Griffin Davis’ Jojo was completely convincing and among the most natural I’ve seen in some time. Not only are the physical similarities striking, but the patter in their banter felt familiar & well-trod, the mutual affection seemed sincere, and their relationship felt lived in–never forced or fresh. Manufactured or not, the appearance of a true, genuine love existed, even (or especially) when the words exchanged were barbed or the moods sour…the tenderness remained in tact, a spark of levity always there. You could see it in their eyes, sense it in their souls, track it in their movements…no matter what cheeky quip escaped their lips. Their crackling onscreen energy was nothing short of dazzling. I couldn’t stop smiling watching them play-off each other, so lively & bright, both bursting with an infectiously twinkly charm. You couldn’t cast those two characters any better & because of that dynamic, and against my better judgment, I grew infinitely invested in that plucky pair: mother lion and her little cub. So, thanks Taika for ramming a dagger right through my fucking heart….it had to be done, but, boy-oh-boy, it left me struggling to breathe. This revelation?

Brutal to digest. Devastating, but exceptionally executed.

That loss was significant, the hurt palpable, that love irreplaceable. But, as this film sets out to prove, love can manifest itself in an infinite number of ways…maternal love, the instinctive love of a son for his mother, the blossoming rumble of one’s first romantic love, the love that exists between two childhood friends, platonic love, sibling love, sacrificial love, compassionate love…. We see it all here. And it’s fucking beautiful. A love so powerful that it saved lives, a love so powerful it fought back against tyranny, a love so powerful that it nursed a conflicted spirit back to life. Love is radical. Love heals. Love conquers. Love trumps hate. One such instance is when Captain Klenzendorf, a Nazi officer, extends an uncharacteristic degree of humanity to the Elsa, the Jewish girl hiding in Jojo’s house. Now, listen, I can understand how one might have a reactionary knee-jerk at the gall of inserting a “nice Nazi” into a WWII satire. But, I had a different read and response to it. After all, people are inherently complex with many sides, angles & layers. Captain K had a fondness for Jojo & a deep respect for his mother, Rosie, that was perfectly captured by Sam Rockwell’s natural empathy & innate sensitivity–it shines through even when the veneer appears tarnished. We don’t know how long this trio has known each other, nor the history they’ve shared, but we are aware that a casual camaraderie, of sorts, develops. He trusts Jojo enough to show him the elaborately flamboyant uniform adjustments he’d hoped to make–the gay subtext is overt–which is another reason why I think he has a soft spot for the boy. Jojo is different, too–his spirit is softer than most & after the grenade incident, he’s physically transformed in a way that’s relatable to the one-eyed Captain K. And this may be a leap, but I think that Rosie would have likely been open-minded & accepting of his queerness & that he might have been able to sense that, too (I know I can in others). He also had the wherewithal to accept that the end was nigh, that there was no hope of Germany winning that war. He was tired & weathered, grasping that all this would be over soon. There was nothing left to lose, so, then & only then, did he chose to do what he could. He risked his life to save Jojo…TWICE, the second time proving to be his final act on this earth. I don’t think he would have saved just any Jewish girl, but Elsa was involved in Jojo & Rosie’s life…he stuck his neck out to protect the Betzler family. And I do believe gestures like that happened. In this case, it didn’t feel gross or out-of-place, but earned and honest. None of this absolves him of the sins he’s committed, nor of the crimes that he’s guilty of, but it is a positive action that served to protect two young people. He didn’t have to do it, but he chose to. It was a redemptive ACT, yes, but not a redemptive ARC…not an exoneration. Nazis in this film are not glorified or portrayed in a positive manner, in fact, with the sole exception of Captain K, they’re all complete buffoons. Taika is not trivializing what they did or diminishing their bone-deep, red-handed evil, rather he’s magnifying their batshit beliefs & amplifying their ill-informed idiocy. These aren’t the power-hungry, controlling masterminds at the top of the regime, but the down-the-line lackeys simply doing their Master’s bidding. They’re dopey loons, who obsequiously serve the Führer, no questions asked. The film turns them into caricatures; over-the-top, distorted versions of their real-life counterparts. And by doing so, we can see them for who they really are: spineless, ignorant clowns. They blind-bought into something that they didn’t even understand, something based entirely on lies. But, as the “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” intro heavily insinuates, Hitler’s popularity was quite similar to that of the 1960’s era Beatles. He was a celebrity with a cult following & a hysterical fan-base. He spoke, they listened. He told, they did. He said jump and they jumped. That’s what a magnetic leader does…collects ardent admirers. This isn’t harmful, in and of itself, but when that much authority, influence & control falls into the wrong hands, it can be weaponized–and in Hitler’s case, to the tune of 11 million murdered innocents. In Jojo Rabbit we’re shown how many Nazis were completely uneducated about those they sought to destroy: they had no personal history with Jews, no actual knowledge of them, no real understanding of who they were. They just mindlessly followed orders; hypnotized by a master manipulator, seduced by a silver-tongued serpent. It’s impossible to comprehend how something like this could happen, but it did.

If only the real Hitler had been as easy to overrule as Jojo’s imaginary version. Speaking of which, I assume that Taika’s creative choice of portraying der Führer as childishly campy & impish was likely a touch controversial with some. Don’t let it be. Kids create imaginary friends for a wide variety of reasons, but one common denominator is the child’s need to control something. In Jojo’s case, it could have been spurned on by the tragic death of his older sister, the absence of his father, or a combination of both. Hell, war itself brings it’s own degree of uncertainty. An imaginary friend offered a way to project his fears, to filter his emotions, to comfort & reassure him, and keep him company. Why Hitler? Well, as his mom said….he was a fanatic. And I’m guessing his obsession likely started around the same time his father fled and/or his sister passed. It filled a void, it offered a distraction, it gave him direction. He was, effectively, the man of the house & did what he thought was best for himself, for his mother, for his country. He wanted to grow up, he wanted to help, he wanted to defend. His conjured version of Der Führer bore few similarities to the actual man, beyond the superficial and rote recitation of the party platform. He was more just a sounding-off board for Jojo, a way to sort through his cluttered thoughts. I had no issue with Taika’s playfully bratty performance because it made perfect sense for the friend to be a manifestation of a male figure he looked up to (a surrogate for his dad) & for him to be an extension of Jojo’s own personality; imbued with pieces of himself: attitude, quirks, goofiness, etc. It’s weird & inappropriate when taken out-of-context, but within the narrative itself, it’s…still weird, yes, but it works.

Actually, I felt that almost everything here worked. I recognize it’s divisiveness, but I have to admit that I really enjoyed Jojo Rabbit. And maybe “enjoying” a movie about Nazis & WWII feels counter-intuitive or improper. But, that was my honest reaction & I’m not going to deny myself that. It’s a beautiful production–visually striking with rich hues & tones, vibrant pastels, a warm glow that feels natural & organic, with crisp, precise attention to period details, impeccable costume designs, and all-around it’s one of the best-looking films I’ve seen in some time. Aesthetically speaking, it reminded me of a mix between a graphic novel come-to-life & the model town from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. A BIG COMPLIMENT. As aforementioned, I found the acting from Scarlett and Roman to be extraordinarily effective–just pure, unadulterated, cinematic magic. They somehow managed to flawlessly capture one of the most innately intimate relationships that can exist between humans. A truly m magnetic gift of a performance, so captivating that I couldn’t take my eyes off either one of them. And the rest of the cast wasn’t too shabby either! Sam Rockwell, Thomasin Mackenzie, and Archie Yates being the obvious standouts….each bringing a little something extra to their respective roles: world-weary amiability in Sam, a scampish soulfulness in Thomasin, and remarkable comic timing in the adorably bespectacled cherub, Archie. The anachronistic soundtrack isn’t off-putting, but it wasn’t overly memorable either. As for the writing? Loved it. I even cried re-reading the script. It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s silly, it’s sharp, it’s hopeful and manages to deftly balance it’s themes well. And I’m really, really happy it won at the Oscars. 🙂

Taika described this film as an anti-hate satire, which feels mostly apt, as the main emphasis is squarely on the importance of kindness & the power of love. But my opinion is that, yes, this is a satire, but it’s stronger when viewed as a fable (actually the satirical elements are it’s weakest!). If you read it as such, then you’ll likely focus more on the actual moral being conveyed and less on the hypothetical social ramifications of a sympathetic Nazi character in the year of 2020. I, personally, found the core message important and timely, but we live in such a divided society that many will reject it on sight, finding it abhorrent & distasteful. They will reduce it to being nothing more than a promotion of the “very fine people on both sides” narrative. I can’t change those folk’s minds and this film won’t either, which means, unfortunately, that those who really need to hear the lesson at it’s heart….won’t. And that’s a damn shame.

"Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final."
-Rainer Maria Rilke

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