Johannes Betzler, better known as Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), is a 10-year old boy in Berlin, Germany near the end of World War II. His father is off in Italy, either fighting for or against the Nazis, and his older sister died of influenza, so Jojo lives with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) in their home. Jojo and his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) are going off to Hitler Youth camp to learn fighting and survival techniques to protect the Fatherland. Jojo is nervous but gets words of encouragement from his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). At the camp, Jojo is ordered by some older boys to wring a rabbit’s neck to prove he’s willing to kill to protect Germany. Jojo refuses and is tagged with the nickname Jojo Rabbit. Adolf tells Jojo the rabbit is cunning, fast, can outthink his enemies and isn’t a coward at all. With renewed confidence, Jojo runs back to the group where they are being taught how to throw grenades by the leader of the camp Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). Jojo grabs a grenade and throws it, but it bounces off a tree and lands at his feet. Frozen in fear, the grenade explodes, injuring Jojo’s leg and scarring his face. Because of his perceived incompetence, Captain Klenzendorf is assigned a low-level job posting propaganda posters and collecting metal, and once he has recovered from his injuries, Rosie takes Jojo to the office so he can feel included and help. Arriving at home before his mother one day, Jojo hears noises coming from his sister’s room. He investigates and discovers a panel in the wall granting access to a hidden compartment. Inside he discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teenager Rosie is hiding from the Nazis. Jojo threatens to turn her in but Elsa warns he and Rosie might get in trouble also. Jojo and Elsa declare an uneasy truce, but he demands she share all her “Jew secrets” so he can write a book and one day present it to Hitler.
“Jojo Rabbit” is a sweet and funny coming of age film set against the horrors of World War II. Writer and director Taika Waititi, who also plays Jojo’s imaginary friend in the form of Hitler, downplays most of the atrocities in his film as it’s not really based on historical facts, but loosely on a book called “Caging Skies” by author Christine Leunens. Combining childhood imaginary friends, the priming of a generation to hate Jews and others seen as inferior, and a worldwide conflict that cost millions of lives is difficult to turn into a comedy, but Waititi succeeds…mostly.
Viewed with over 70 years of hindsight, films of Hitler giving speeches, wildly gesticulating and puffing out his chest as thunderous applause washes over him from adoring followers, seems almost comical. None of us can understand the circumstances that led to the rise of Nazism since we didn’t experience the German economic collapse due to reparations demanded by the Allies as punishment for World War I. We can’t understand a country’s fanaticism and willingness to follow the orders of madman, demanding the expulsion, then extermination, of a race of people. Despite America’s current political climate that draws dire comparisons, the conditions that led to nationalism, fascism and genocide are unknown to modern people (except for those unfortunate ones that live under totalitarian regimes like in North Korea). Portraying Hitler as a child’s imaginary friend takes the sting out of the dictator’s crimes against humanity. While there are some atrocities shown, like the public hanging of people considered traitors or enemies of the State, the last weeks of European campaign look pretty calm, peaceful, almost idyllic.
And that’s my biggest complaint about “Jojo Rabbit.” Director Waititi puts a glossy finish on a dark and horrific period in world history. Yes, he’s showing the end of the war through the eyes of a child, but there were many things children of the time saw that could have been incorporated. We do see young people given guns and told to kill invading troops. Rebel Wilson, playing a trainer of Hitler youth named Fraulein Rahm, sticks a grenade with the pin pulled down the belt of a young boy and tells him to go hug an American. These scenes are played for the sake of dark humor and we never see any children die as a result. The approach is more like Monty Python-lite. There’s no dismemberment, no obvious dummy bodies blown up, as the death always happens off screen. I think this approach cheapens the story. We all know the Nazis were murderous brutes, but we aren’t shown that except is snippets that fail to connect. Perhaps I’ve watched too many World War II documentaries with footage shot of bodies lying in the street, but I think Waititi owes it to the victims of this bloody war to show the suffering caused by a group of people suffering the delusion of being a superior race.
All that said, “Jojo Rabbit” has a great to going for it. The performances of the cast are lovely. Roman Griffin Davis is a joy to watch as Jojo. He undergoes a great deal of growth as the film progresses. Jojo is a fanatic with a dream of serving on Hitler’s personal guard. He believes all the lies he’s fed about Jews having horns, sucking the blood of victims, eating babies and the like. Davis can put a cute face on fascism as we follow him through his transition to decent human being.
Thomasin McKenzie is affecting as Elsa. The young woman forced to hide in a wall is broken when we meet her. She plays with Jojo’s opinions about Jews, confirming what he believes to educate him about how silly the lies he’s been told are. A scene where Jojo is trying to hurt her by reading a fake letter from her boyfriend will break your heart as the hateful words heap more damage on an already fragile soul. McKenzie’s is possibly the best performance in the film.
Director Waititi steals every scene he’s in as Hitler. Portraying the dictator as a childish oaf works well. Waititi is gifted in both his script and performance, shaming Nazis for their ridiculous beliefs of supremacy. Jojo’s Hitler is a stand-in for his absent father, providing support and guidance as Jojo navigates his way through a world that’s falling apart. Waititi doesn’t shy away from making Hitler an aggressive jerk towards Jojo. He puts on a Beer Hall Putsch flourish to some of his pep talks, likely based on speeches Jojo heard on the radio. While I have an issue with how in general the subject matter was presented, I have no problem with Waititi’s take down of Hitler.
“Jojo Rabbit” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language. There are a couple of scenes showing bodies hanging in the town square. The end of the film has some battle scenes showing a few people getting shot and laying amongst the rubble. Jojo is shown being injured by a grenade. Anti-Semitism is featured throughout the film. Foul language is scattered and mostly mild.
I enjoyed “Jojo Rabbit” a great deal, however the softening of the horrors of war was something constantly nibbling at my mind. I understand the film’s main characters are a 10-year old boy and a teenage girl, but I also know young people were witness to awful things at the end of World War II in Europe. They had suffered through food and medicine shortages and then the brutality of Soviet troops looking to exact revenge for all their people lost on the Eastern front. Taika Waititi sweeps most of this under the rug with a few offhand comments. I think dealing with it more directly would have made the humor of the movie more effective and a relief from the horrors of war. It’s a difficult balance to strike and Waititi partially failed.
“Jojo Rabbit” gets four stars out of five.
I am taking some time off so there probably won’t be a review this week (probably) but here’s what’s opening in a multiplex near you.
Jumanji: The Next Level—
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