©2019 Kari Carlisle
I fell in love with the Nazis in Jojo Rabbit. While that makes me terribly uncomfortable to say, in my defense, this dark comedy sheds a truly human light on individuals caught up in the fervor generated by evil people.
The movie starts with 10-year-old Jojo, played by Roman Griffin Davis, attending a Nazi youth camp, accompanied by his very real friend Yorki (Archie Yates) and his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, played by Taika Waititi who also directed. While adamant in his enthusiasm for Hitler and against those “scary,” “mind-reading” Jews, Jojo turns out to be a pretty poor Nazi and a wonderfully sweet little boy. When told in camp to wring a rabbit’s neck, he can’t bring himself to do it, even as his leaders and other youth cry, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” and then “Jojo Rabbit! Jojo Rabbit!” as his cowardice is exposed. With unexpected wisdom, Adolf (Jojo’s imaginary friend generated by his young mind, not to be confused with the real Hitler of history) assures Jojo that rabbits are brave to live in a scary world and that Jojo is as brave as a rabbit.
Much of the movie’s humor comes from Jojo’s imaginary Adolf, camp leader Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), and Jojo’s own awkward struggle to be a good Nazi. The initial chuckles from the audience were rather nervous. Are we really supposed to be laughing during a movie about Nazi’s? But as the movie continued, the audience response became more comfortable, though it never evolved into outright guffaws.
The world is not a stranger to the use of humor as a foil for what is arguably one of the darkest periods in recent history. Hogan’s Heroes plotted Hogan and allies against bumbling Nazi’s from the confines of their POW camp. And while not a comedy per se, Life is Beautiful showcased the lighthearted humor of Roberto Benigni as he sought to normalize his family’s life inside a Nazi internment camp for Jews.
Despite its comedy status, Jojo Rabbit is not afraid to “go there,” i.e. show some of the horrors of Nazism, thus the “dark” in dark comedy. Be prepared for emotional highs and lows and a drive home after the movie in silence as you attempt to wrap your brain around what you’ve seen here.
While advertised as a dark comedy, the real power of Jojo Rabbit is in the depth of its characters and the surprising relationships between them. For a 10-year-old boy, Jojo’s emotional development is unusually advanced, and his love for Adolf is dramatically overshadowed by his love for his mother (Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson), Yorki (whom he hugs every time they meet), and even the Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), hiding in the wall of his dead sister’s room. The intensity of emotion is only increased as the figures in Jojo’s life reciprocate his love in spades.
The acting in Jojo Rabbit is all-around amazing, and particular accolades should go to Rockwell, McKenzie, Johansson, and Griffin Davis. You would never know that Jojo is Griffin Davis’s breakout role. I expect great things from this young actor in the future. With only one hiccup (when Yates’s accent briefly migrates from Austrian to British in one scene), every actor kept the audience firmly rooted in the plot and setting, and I give equal credit to the genius direction of Waititi.
There are many other things to like about this film. The cinematography, lighting, color, and music are perfect (with David Bowie being the cherry on top). The pace slows down only once about three quarters through, but only for a moment, and I was swept back into this beautiful/ugly world. I hate spoilers and refuse to give any here – suffice to say, there are little, delightful twists to reward us for having to deal with the shocks.
Please do give this film a chance. I went with a dear friend whose mother lived through WWII in Germany and her father was deported from Poland to Siberia by Stalin, and she was not put out by it. Also keep in mind that Waititi himself is Jewish. And he played Hitler. As he puts it, “what better ‘fuck you’ to the guy?”