Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit

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

This review may contain spoilers.

I'm frankly very surprised with the amount of dismissal that has met Jojo Rabbit. While it is no doubt risky to make a comedic satire (however dark) set in Nazi Germany, centered around a young fanatic who fantasizes about a positive, gregarious Adolf Hitler as his best friend, you at least have to be thankful that Taika Waititi is protected by the principles of free speech that allowed him to do this. And I know that there are some of you who wanted Waititi to push the envelope a little more, but I think that if he had, we would have lost some ofthe power of this film.

Strong comedy is one of the best ways to endear a work to its audience, and the opening scene of this film, with Hitler (Waititi) pumping up Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (a wonderfully precocious Roman Griffin Davis) by getting some solid "Heil Hitler!"s out of him worked wonders on me. Then we roll right into The Beatles' German recording of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand"?! Are you kidding?! I'm so there.

I wish I hadn't seen the trailer that revealed the first act twist because I would have loved to get thrown around by the discovery of Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie making god on her Leave No Trace work) but I loved the journey to and with her all the same. Once Elsa arrives on the scene, the film begins a delicate balancing act. On one half, we have the comedy: Hitler mugging for Jojo and shaking his pudgy belly; Jojo being a silly 10-year-old boy whose young antics just happen to intersect with National Socialism; Elsa leaning into Jojo's racist perceptions of Jews; Sam Rockwell's Captain Klenzendorf constantly ranting about his lack of prestige. It's all gut-busting, at least for me. The other half is the genuine-enough grappling with the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. There is real fear for Elsa, tragedy, and a thoughtful exploration of the monsters and conformists it takes to support the kind of movement that Nazism was.

Your fondness for Jojo Rabbit directly depends on your opinion of the success of this balancing act. I happened to think it went off without a hitch. It's easy to tell you that it worked - it's harder to say why. Let me try with one description. During a battle scene, Rebel Wilson's overzealous Fräulein Rahm is directing a group of Hitler Youth into battle. More specifically, clones, which is of course hilarious because of the legends about attempts by the Nazis to clone Hitler. But in the dire straits of their defense of the city, Rahm has no desire to protect them. She is putting grenades on their backs, pulling the cords, and telling them to go hug Allied troops. When I saw this, I did one of those laughs where you let out a deep yelp and cover your mouth. The thought of children being sent into battle, blind to their purpose and with no hope for survival, is devastating and grim. But the dialogue Rahm uses is playful and it reminds us of her larger-than-life character (she birthed 18 children from Das Vaterland). This juxtaposition of the morbid and the comedic works for me because they depend on one another. Without Rahm's cruel command, we want to believe that this would not be happening. But without such a wild and inhumane tactic, there's nothing on which to hang a joke that will actually provoke laughter (at least not the kind you want in a dark satire).

If Waititi had leaned too much into the comedy, say, by bringing his Hitler into the frame more frequently as Jojo's character develops independent thought, we might lose sight of an actual message. If he had taken the adorable and wonderful Yorki (Archie Yates) out of the battle scenes and the aftermath, we could have easily lost the stomach to watch the film.

No matter the scene or tone, Waititi treats the moment with artistry. There's a magnificent recurring visual that concludes in dramatic fashion I am grateful to have not predicted. The often silent inclusion of Hitler's sagging presence is as subtle as it can be and he is framed in corners or obscurity to enhance the visual comedy. I felt that he paid special attention to Klenzendorf and his companion (on two levels) Finkel (Alfie Allen).

I suspect this is the character most people will have the most difficulty with. When he is introduced to us, he comes off as a dedicated ideologue. We have no reason to suspect that he does not want to fight for Germany. He continually laments his inability to substantially contribute to the war effort. But we soon intimate that he and Finkel are in a closeted homosexual relationship. If this were public, they would be killed immediately. Surely Klenzendorf knows that his own beloved government is actively oppressing and murdering others like him. Yet when the chips are down and defeat is imminent, he opts to fight for his country in his fashion. He could have fled and had a good chance of surviving. He did not.

This act must be taken in concert with the final gesture he makes towards Jojo (as well as his earlier act of benevolence). In saving him and complementing his mother's good work, it would be easy to simplify the character and admonish Waititi for making the central Nazi "one of the good guys." But mustn't be reductive. Minutes earlier, he was gleefully killing men on the same side as Jojo's mom. He is not "one of the good guys." He's one of the complicated guys. His actions tell us that he values the status of his nation more than the values we suspect he holds. Waititi is telling us that, despite whatever we see, he is ultimately neglectful of his larger duty as a human.

At the same time, he is emblematic of the movie's theme: on the personal level, demonization fails. As the quote attributed to many goes, "It's hard to hate up close." Jojo learns this lesson. Rosie, his mother (Scarlett Johansson), seems to have known this from the womb, as did his absent father. Elsa, as the target of so much hate, learned it the hard way, and early. Stephen Merchant's evil Gestapo crew don't grasp it, but they don't get up close.

I wasn't expecting such a valuable theme to emerge from a film that looked to be so silly at first blush, but like I said, the balance worked for me. I didn't even take time to talk about the individual performances, but everyone - Davis, Waititi, Johansson, McKenzie, Rockwell, and especially Yates - are perfectly placed. With a script walking this fine of a line, you have to have the actors who understand the exact tone of each line to pull it off. No one can be blamed for not jiving with that tone, but I don't think you can blame Waititi for anything he did, either.

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