Movie Review | Jojo Rabbit
By Cassie Maz
The quick take: In an anti-hate movie, Waititi puts hate front and center–and toes the line expertly.
Thor Ragnarok (2017) director Taika Waititi finds a unique balance between laugh-out-loud humor and raw emotion in his newest film, Jojo Rabbit (2019). Set in Nazi Germany, this dramedy could have struggled to find its footing, but Waititi’s creation managed to find the sweet spot, dancing deftly between a silly tone and a serious one, then back again.
The movie bursts open with high energy. A German rendition of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” plays as Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) giddily speeds his way to Hitler Youth training between shots of crowds heiling Hitler, drawing a unique parallel between Hitler’s blind following and Beatlemania.
And that’s exactly how Jojo sees Hiter–as a celebrity. His main goal is to become part of Hitler’s personal guard, and he’s eager to show his worth as part of the Nazi regime. His devotion to the Third Reich is so strong that his imaginary friend is none other than Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) himself, bolstering Jojo whenever he doubts his Aryan merits.
Though its characters may celebrate Nazi Germany, the movie paints Jojo’s fascist upbringing satirically, using movie genre tropes to dramatize just how ridiculous the Nazi mindset is. Jojo’s short time with the Hitler Youths resembles an American sleep-away camp, with military training taught like boy scouting activities. But the hyper-saturated colors in each shot reveal Jojo’s dreamlike perception of training to be a fantastical idealization. Similarly, the movie first introduces Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), the Jewish girl Jojo’s mother is hiding in their home, using hyper-dramatized horror tropes–floorboards creaking, fingers slowly bending around a doorway–to showcase the absolutely ludicrous notion Jojo has of the “terrifying” Jews.
Roman Griffin Davis shines as Jojo, who we root for not in spite of his Nazi beliefs, but because we know he has the potential to overcome his hatred. Plus, despite his best efforts at being the model Nazi, he’s really bad at it. Though he projects an eagerness to fit in, the movie paints him as a product of his surroundings. His self worth is based purely on his merits as a soldier, yet a genuine knowledge of right and wrong makes him hesitant when asked him to prove himself as a Nazi.
Each character faces their own set of internal struggles, and this is the true focus of the movie. Jojo grapples with what true loyalty means and where his lies; Elsa struggles to survive day to day and erase Jojo’s preconceived notions of the Jewish people. And Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson) struggles with the fact that someday she might be forced to choose between Elsa and her own son, whose political views terrify her. Even Hitler, a bumbling idiot for most of the film, evolves into something far more sinister as Jojo and Elsa come to know each other better.
Much of the humor in this film is absurdist. The Nazis themselves aren’t funny, but they’re obliviousness is. Such a stark dichotomy does raise important questions, though, about what exactly I was laughing at. Even as I was enjoying the film, a voice in the back of my head reminded me: you’re laughing at the silly antics of Nazis. Many of the jokes’ punchlines involved the Nazis’ outlandish conceptions of Jewish people–they have horns and scales, smell like brussel sprouts, and their rabbis steal penises! One may argue that such heavy satirizing of a hate group diminishes their seriousness–the true, pervasive threat they present. Yet Waititi, of Jewish descent, doesn’t shy away from the absolutely terrifying reality of Nazism: any scene with Stephen Merchant’s looming Deertz, a clear deviation from Sam Rockwell’s, Alfie Allen’s, and Rebel Wilson’s characters, made my skin crawl. His empty smile alone, expertly performed, is the stuff of nightmares.
One final note I’ll leave you to mull over is the concept of redemption, something Waititi plays with without addressing it head on. Can Jojo, a brainwashed child, atone for his hatred? I’d argue yes. But what of the adult Nazis? Without spoiling which character this pertains to, Waititi paints one Nazi with an air of ambiguity. In the end, this movie is about the humanity individuals can find in a world as inhumane as Nazi Germany. I invite you to watch and decide for yourself what the small actions this character takes say about their humanity.