“Jojo Rabbit” was written, directed, and acted in by Taika Waititi. He won an Oscar for his adaptation of Christine Leunen’s book. The book is about a young boy in Hitler’s Germany toward the end of the war. Waititi added the imaginary Hitler character and played him in the movie. He did no research on Hitler and meant the role to be a mockery of the dictator. The movie was controversial because of its comedic take on Hitler’s Germany, but it was critically acclaimed by most critics. It received six Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Scarlet Johannson), Production Design, Costume Design, Film Editing, and Adapted Screenplay. Waititi won Best Adapted Screenplay from the Academy Awards, BAFTA, and the Writers’ Guild.
The movie opens with a German version of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”. (And closes with the German version of David Bowie’s “Heroes”). Let the satire begin! Jojo Belzler is a ten-year old who is in the Hitler Youth. He has been thoroughly indoctrinated in Nazi doctrines, like anti-semitism. But he is not likely to become a stormtrooper as he is just a naïve little boy corrupted by the system. Jojo has an imaginary friend – a buffoonish Adolf Hitler. Hitler is his mentor and confirms what Jojo has been taught. On the other end of the spectrum, his mother Rosie is secretly an anti-Nazi. She tries to keep his childhood whimsical, but he is being pulled into the serious nature of the war as the Americans and the Soviets are closing in on his town. As preparation for their conscription, Jojo and his best friend Yorki attend a Hitler Youth Camp run by the decorated combat veteran Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). There is the requisite training montage, but this one includes book burning. Jojo gets his nickname “Rabbit” because he refuses to kill a rabbit to earn his Nazi merit badge. His world is turned upside down when he discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Their relationship will force him to reassess what he has been indoctrinated about the Jews.
This is a unique movie. I understand the criticism about portraying the Nazis and Hitler in a humorous way, but Mel Brooks (who lauded the film) did a similar thing in “The Producers”. Clearly, Waititi is making 21st Century satire and no one could have left the theater wanting to join a neo-Nazi militia. However, it is not dark satire. It tends more toward silliness. For instance, when Klenzendorf asks for some German shepherds to defend the town, he gets a group of actual shepherds. When the Gestapo visits Jojo’s home, 31 Heil Hitlers are exchanged in about a minute. The minor characters are caricatures. Rebel Wilson plays a butch she-Nazi. Alfie Allen is Klenzendorf’s lackey second-in-command. There is a huge gap between these characters and the main trio of Jojo, Rosie, and Elsa. All three are amazing characters. The relationship between Jojo and his mother is moving and Rosie is the real hero of the picture. She gets the best line. When Jojo asks what the people who have been hanged in the town square did, she responds: “What they could.” It is one of the few lines in the movie that is not aimed at smiles. There are many funny lines told with straight faces. Some of the funniest lines go to Yorki. Here is a typical exchange between the two friends:
Yorki: There are bigger things to worry about than Jews, Jojo. There's Russians somewhere out there. They're worse than anyone. I heard they eat babies and have sex with dogs. I mean like that's bad, right?
Jojo: Sex with dogs?
Yorki: Yeah. The Englishmen do it too. We have to stop them before they eat us and screw all our dogs.
The key to the movie is the romance of Jojo and Elsa. While it does take the standard route of a rom-com, it is much deeper than a film from that subgenre. The Jojo/Elsa dynamic allows Waititi to poke fun at German myths about the Jews. It’s uncomfortable humor and in a drama would be considered offensive. This is high-level satire to balance the slapstick portrayal of the Nazis.
The movie has a top-notch cast and they are clearly fully on board. Scarlet Johansson earned her Academy Award nomination and is perfect as Rosie. But the movie relies on the work of two young actors who have very bright futures. Roman Griffen Davis plays Jojo. He is wonderful in his acting debut. His performance is matched by Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa. She is the one character that exemplifies the dark aspects of the war and McKenzie brings a blend of hopelessness and feistiness to her portrayal. Her interactions with Jojo are the highlights of the film. Their arc is not trivialized. Those who criticize the humor of the movie need to give it credit for giving us one of the great Holocaust characters.
The movie is a real treat for the eyes. Waititi found that most German towns were not bombed into rubble and life continued fairly close to normal. Filmed in Czechoslovakia, Jojo’s neighborhood has an old world look to it. The pristine environment is meant to convey the cluelessness of the German public as to what was actually happening in the war. The Oscar nomination for Costume Design must have mainly been for the costumes put on Johannson. Elsa’s fashions are great at conveying her personality. She wants to shield her son from evil, but dresses to evoke her pre-war party-girl days. She also dresses to try to distract Jojo from the realities of the war. The very odd music score by Michael Giacchino (“Rogue One”) matches the vibe of the film well.
“Jojo Rabbit” deserved its Best Picture nomination. It deftly blends satire, broad humor, and drama. For a movie that is laugh out loud funny in parts, it has some very poignant moments. It is a movie that does not fit clearly in a category, but that is one of its strengths. I have seen hundreds of war movies and I am always open to movies that push the boundaries of the genre. There are some significant war comedies, but this subgenre is not noted for great satires. “Jojo Rabbit” takes its place with movies like “Dr. Strangelove” at the upper tier of war comedies. It is a must-see for war movie lovers, but I can’t promise everyone that they will like it. I can enjoy both “Jojo Rabbit” and “Hail the Conquering Hero”, but not everyone can.
GRADE = A