Jojo Rabbit and all the images you see in this review are owned by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Taika Waititi
I don’t know if I’d classify this as Oscar Bait even though it’s set in World War II which is like half the criteria right there, but it’s certainly a film that’s been on everyone’s radars for months now; somewhat due to the controversial subject matter, but mostly because of the filmmaker behind it who’s really blown up in the last few years and for good reason. Thor: Ragnarok was one of the most exciting films in that Phase of the Marvel franchise, and everything we’ve seen of him since then has only increased his status in the public eye. Now we have his first directorial film since Ragnarok which is a satire of Fascism at a time that couldn’t be more relevant, so you can’t say that the guy doesn’t swing for the fences! Is this a brutal and necessary take down of the ideology that’s been infecting global politics for a few years now, or is the film just not equipped to tackle such a heavy subject matter no matter how much talent there is behind it? Let’s find out!!
Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a young boy growing up in Nazi Germany who wants nothing more than to become a true fighter for the cause and even has Hitler as his imaginary friend that gives him pep talks and dubious advice. He hopes that the camp he’s about to attend for the Hitler Youth will be the turning point in his life as he becomes a TRUE man and uses the skills he will learn to not only fight for the Aryan race, but become Hitler’s right hand man as they exterminate the dastardly Jews off the face of the Earth! Yeah… Jojo is kind of a messed up kid all things considered, but he’s also seemingly too sensitive to REALLY become the monster that the rest of the Nazis around him have become, and he gets the nickname Jojo Rabbit when he refuses to kill a rabbit to prove his manhood. Instead he tries to throw a grenade which goes horribly wrong and leaves him with a bunch of scars on his face and a leg that doesn’t work as well as it used to. Because of this he has to spend more time at home with his mother (Scarlett Johansson) who he suspects may not be fully on board with this whole “Nazi” thing; a suspicion confirmed when he finds out that she’s been protecting a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) who’s been living in a secret room within the walls of the house; specifically the walls in the room of Jojo’s sister who seems to have died at some point during the war. With his own family seeming to turn against the ideology he loves and the man he believes to be a hero, will Jojo come to terms with the failings of the Nazi ideology and join his mother in resisting their influences? The allied powers seem to be advancing on his village, so will he have to fight against them at some point despite his bad leg and lack of a killer instinct? If Hitler is such a good leader, then why hasn’t he fixed all this kid’s problems and made him a true blue Nazi solider? Checkmate, ten year old kid!!
I don’t know how I feel about this one. Mostly positive I guess? I have some reservations about it, but I can’t figure out if they’re in bad faith or not as I don’t have reason to believe that the filmmakers were anything but sincere in their making of this movie, but… I don’t know. Does anyone remember when Lindsay Ellis made the comparison that Anastasia being made was sort of like if they made an animated Disney musical about the story of Ann Frank? I feel like this movie is the closest we’ve come to that as the idea of melding a story about a precious kid growing up and taking responsibility for himself and a film with THIS much Nazi iconography is not the best combination out there, BUT I also don’t want to imply that this is some sort of coded film that’s in favor of fascism. Then again, it doesn’t have to be INTENTIONAL for anti-fascist media to become co-opted by fascists (i.e. American History X and Tomorrow Belongs to Me), but then is it the fault of the filmmakers if that happens? Am I overthinking this? I might be overthinking this. It’s understandable why I WOULD be overthinking this though, right!?
Let’s talk about the good because there is A LOT of good in this! Most of the acting is good to great with Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and Scarlett Johansson being the standout performances. Rebel Wilson has easily the best gags and one liners in the movie which frankly have the strongest bite to them in terms of satirizing the brutality of the Nazi Regime, and Scarlett Johansson is the voice of reason trying to keep the madcap comedy taking place within said brutal regime in some sort of perspective which is certainly appreciated given the nature of my lingering reservations about the movie overall. Rockwell is somewhere in the middle as he doesn’t have as much to do as Johansson, but he has some great humorous moments and comes into his own as a complex character in a world that only accepts absolutes. I mean… he’s still a Nazi, but we’ll get more into… THAT, soon enough; we’re talking about the good right now! The movie has a great look to it that belies the absurdity of the Nazi regime; a picturesque, almost Christmas village like exterior that it wants to put forth, while a despicable rot is just under the surface that presents itself in various and oftentimes absurd ways. The camp that Jojo goes to at the beginning is lush and green with well-dressed counselors, but the leader is a drunken mess and the counselors turn out to be violent bullies. The town is full of happy faces and sunshine, but in the middle of its square there are always bodies being displayed of those who were deemed traitors and were murdered by the authorities. It knows what it WANTS to do which is create a stylized world that is indicative of the Nazi regime’s propensity towards grandeur and spectacle, but use it against itself by showing how paper thin the façade ultimately is. There’s no doubt that the movie wants us to hate the Nazis and that Jojo being a part of the Hitler Youth is a conflict that he needs to overcome… but there’s still something off about the way it’s done here.
So let’s take the most extremely harsh interpretation of this movie, and then try to walk it back to something that feels more accurate and fair to the movie. At worst, this movie is excusing the individuals within the Nazi regime as being helpless to a few bad apples. Most were not all that into it, the ones that were into it were utterly brainwashed, and the ones that WEREN’T brainwashed are completely devoid of humanity. Either your Sam Rockwell who doesn’t seem to have much choice in the matter, your Rebel Wilson or Jojo who just bought into the Nazi mentality due to their own insecurity or ignorance, or your one of the SS officers who come in WAY late in the movie and are the only Nazis who are legitimately threatening. Just think about that; in a movie FULL of Nazis, only a few of them are threatening. So what are we supposed to take from that!? That Nazis are actually really good people if we just gave them a chance? That they were forced into it and really didn’t want to commit all those war crimes? That they were simply Good Germans caught in a bad situation? Okay, so taking our first steps backwards here, I don’t think that’s a totally fair reading of the movie as we’re frankly not there to take a deep dive into the history of the Nazi regime from the upper levels on down; we’re here to tell the story of a confused boy in a situation where the forces in power are evil and the people who should be protecting this boy (and by extension everyone else) are asleep at the wheel or too afraid to act out of line. From this perspective, we can see what the REAL intent of the movie was and why it’s no coincidence that it was made at THIS point in time. Fascism and authoritarianism have cemented itself in the current political discourse around the globe, so seeing a story about someone who doesn’t know any better in that situation has a certain amount of weight to it as we could very well be failing the current generation in protecting and educating them against what our government is saying and doing on a daily basis.
So okay! We have our new baseline for thinking of this movie’s messaging and theming. It is a parable set in the past to tell us about the present by comparing the over the top and sanitized way the Nazis portrayed themselves to the current administrations flagrant disregard for everything we (at least ATTEMPTED to) stand for with a smile on its face and at least one news mega-corporation running spinning their stories. They were Making Germany Great again, while we’re trying to Make America Great again. So with this new perspective, do the movies themes and messages hold water? Well… sort of. I really like how the movie unfolds its atrocities and horrors over time and how Jojo starts to see them as they become more blatant. That’s a good way of portraying the dangers of normalizing the kind of incremental changes towards fascism that we have to deal with today. The gut bunch at the end of the second act is genuinely crushing, and yet you can still see how everything in the movie was leading up to that one awful moment. Here’s where the problem is though. That moment and the subsequent change in Jojo’s character don’t feel comparable to our current situation. One of the more deflating things about living in this period of time is just how much people are willing to suffer through while still not realizing how bad their decisions and affiliations have been up to that point. I remember reading a story about a man who married a woman who had immigrated illegally, voted for Trump anyway, his wife got deported, and yet he STILL supports the administration even though he’s fighting to get her back into the country. You look at people like Kanye West who has more resources than ANYONE to understand the harm that this administration is causing, who has access to more learned voices than anyone, many of whom have reached out to him, and it was all for naught. I was thinking of those stories as I saw the way that certain characters in this movie, including Jojo, were portrayed as victims who either knew the bad situation but couldn’t do anything to stop it or were just too ignorant to understand what was going on. I can’t claim to know the answer to the worlds ills or how to reach people SO entrenched into these ideologies, and maybe a movie that inspires hope that if given the right push that people CAN change or that someone so far gone can STILL display a degree of humanity or selflessness is not overall a net negative on the world. The problem is that I just don’t know so I’m having trouble saying one way or another if this is a good message for the movie to preach; if its reaching out to the people out there who need to change or is pointlessly admonishing the rest of us for failing to see the potential to change that may or may not actually be there (it also doesn’t help that the Jewish girl in the movie is integral to Jojo realizing his mistakes which in some ways implies that it’s incumbent upon the victims to educate their oppressors). I HOPE that people out there who fall for this ideology hook line and sinker are people that can learn, grow, and understand the harm they end up doing, but I’m just not completely on board with the way this movie decides to convey that message.
It’s hard for me to NOT overthink these things and worry about them while we are smack dab in the middle of such an awful time that SPECIFICALLY calls back to the ideology that this movie is satirizing, and maybe if we do get past this particularly dark period in time I’ll find it in myself to relax a lot more on a rewatch and have nothing but praise for it. For right now though, I can see what’s good about it, I can find things that I personally enjoyed quite a bit, and I can see the intention of the filmmakers which for the most part are noble in intent if not quite in execution. Do I recommend it? It’s hard to say. I’m leaning towards no, but then so much of this is tied up in my own feelings about the way things are going right now that may not be shared by everyone. Then again, if you DO feel the way I do about current events and the climate in which this movie was made in, perhaps waiting for a home release would be the more prudent strategy. Maybe someday I’ll be able laugh at it like the audience in the second half of Springtime for Hitler, but right now I’m a lot closer to the agog audience from the first half than I’d care to admit.