Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Jojo Rabbit
“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”
You’ll think that now is not a good time for a film like Jojo Rabbit. A film about a Hitler youth who has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend? I mean you have the rise of neo-Nazi groups and alt-right factions creeping up as well as the ‘woke’ people on the internet getting offended and hostile over things. Is this the right film to have out now?
The film begins in Berlin in the latter years of World War II. A ten year-old boy named Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler is all dress for the weekend at Hitler Youth, or Hitlerjugend, camp. He’s not confident he can do this; he’s socially awkward and can’t even tie his shoelaces right. However he does receive encouragement from his imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler. Hitler hypes him up with so much excitement, Jojo goes running down the street shouting “Heil Hitler” like a maniac! That is until he meets up with his best friend Yorki just before arriving for what he expects to be the ‘best weekend ever.’
The camp is being taught by former army officer Captain Klenzendorf and assisted with Fraulein Rahm who’s dedicated to the Third Reich and even gave birth to fifteen children! The boys are taught all sorts of attack games and they end the first night with a book burning rally. The next day during a training session, some older boys give a lecture to the younger boys about being brutal and having no mercy when killing. They hand-pick Jojo to kill a rabbit with his bare hands. Despite all the boys except Yorki urging Jojo to kill it, he doesn’t have what it takes. The older boy then snaps the rabbit’s neck and calls Jojo ‘Jojo Rabbit’ which all the other boys except Yorki do. Hitler spots Jojo alone crying. Hitler then reminds Jojo of the cunning feisty traits of the rabbit and encourages him to ‘be the rabbit.’ This pumps Jojo up so much, he’s““` all in to try the next exercise, which is throwing a Stielhandgranate. Jojo yanks it out of Klenzendorf’s hand and throws it without fear. Thing is the grenade bounces off a tree and lands by Jojo’s feet which Hitler runs off from. The grenade explodes with Jojo alone!
After months of hospitalization, Jojo has mostly recovered but his left face has visible facial scars and walks with a limp on his left leg. His mother Rosie is happy to take him home for some time. However Rosie does bring him to the office where she kicks Klenzendorf for allowing Jojo to be exposed to something so dangerous. Klenzendorf has been demoted to the office and is given the task by Rosie to make Jojo feel included. Klenzendorf agrees to let Jojo spread propaganda leaflets and collect scrap metal for the war effort, which Jojo does wearing a cardboard robot outfit and carry a wagon!
Jojo comes home one day expecting his mother. Instead he hears a rattle in the house. He senses it’s coming from the room of his older sister Inge, who died of an illness years ago. Jojo later finds out a teenage girl is hiding between the walls. The girl is a Jewish girl his mother is hiding and is a former classmate of Inge’s. Jojo threatens to expose her to the Gestapo but the girl named Elsa reminds him if he does, his mother will be executed. Hitler is shocked when he hears a Jew is hiding in the house. Hitler asks Jojo to work something out. Jojo works out he will keep Elsa a secret as long as she helps him with a book he’s writing: a book about Jews. Elsa agrees to do the writing and drawing. Elsa makes up things like Jews having horns and mind-reading. That especially shocks Hitler to learn about this girl and her powers. The book impresses Klenzendorf as he meets Jojo at the army pool as Jojo undergoes physical rehab.
This puts a strain on the relationship between Jojo and his mother, which Hitler slyly observes at the dinner table. Jojo accuses Rosie of being unpatriotic and his angry that his father has been away for a long time. Rosie tries to reassure Jojo of having a positive attitude, even as she knows the truth of what happened to her husband. There’s even one day Rosie gets Jojo out of his Nazi uniform and into real clothes for a nice day out and a fun bike ride home, much to Hitler’s chagrin! As time passes, Jojo continues to ask Elsa questions and even tries to deliver fake letters in the name of Elsa’s boyfriend Nathan. Elsa helps Jojo with his book and Jojo realizes he’s in love with Elsa. This gets on Hitler’s nerves as he’s insisting to Jojo that she’s evil.
One day the Gestapo search Jojo’s house along with Klenzendorf. They come across Elsa and she poses as Inge. She even answers the question about Inge’s birthday properly. The Gestapo decide to leave them alone. However it doesn’t stop Elsa from fearing she will die soon. That day out while collecting metal, Jojo is mesmerized when he sees a butterfly, but soon sees his mother hanged. He tries to take his heartbreak out on Elsa with a knife, but fails. Elsa nevertheless hugs Jojo as he’s crying. As the two watch the city get bombed, they both learn that they’re both orphans who lost all their family.
As the city lays in ruins, war action have to be carried out. Jojo is shocked to see Yorki as a soldier and given military actions. All the Hitler Youth have to become soldiers now! He’s even shocked to learn from Yorki that Hitler committed suicide and Germany’s being attacked by almost every front. The boys are given military actions by Fraulein Rahm including Yorki as a sniper and Jojo given a soldier’s coat to disguise himself. Jojo is shocked at everything he sees from dead civilians to children firing guns off to an explosion that kills Rahm. At first Jojo is imprisoned by Soviet soldiers. However he bumps into Klenzendorf. As he knows he will be executed by the Soviets, Klenzendorf tells Jojo he has an admiration for his late mother’s courage. He also tries to get Jojo out of any Soviet mistreatment and has him passed off as a Jew.
As the war ends, Jojo is relieved that Yorki survived the warfare. He just won’t die! However with the war over, it might mean saying goodbye to Elsa, which Jojo doesn’t want to do. Jojo gets that message as Elsa has the book completed with an image of Jojo next to a rabbit in a cage. Before he could, Hitler returns with a bullet-wound in his head. He’s lost it all, but Jojo has had it with him. Hitler tries to get one last piece of appreciation from him, but fails in grand style. The film ends on a positive uplifting note that’s fun to watch.
Now a lot of people have the attitude that Hitler and Nazism and the harms they caused should not be parodized. Especially in a time when even the slightest off-color comment from a well-known person can unleash a wave of wrath on social media like Twitter and could pave their way to their downfall. We should not forget that there have been parodies of Adolf Hitler in the past. There was animation like Looney Tunes’ The Ducktator, Walt Disney’s Stop That Tank and even Der Fuehrer’s Face where Donald Duck poses as Hitler. There has been live action film, especially from some Mel Brooks’ movies like The Producers and To Be Or Not To Be, and even recent examples like in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The most famous film parody of Hitler is 1940’s The Great Dictator. Charlie Chaplin didn’t exactly play Hitler but its obvious who he’s parodizing in his character of Adenoid Hynkel. Actually it was around World War II where Hollywood unleashed possibly released the most parodies of Hitler. And rightly so because Hitler wanted to take over the world, including the USA.
We should also keep in mind that this parody is not an original creation of Taika Waititi. Jojo is actually based off of a book by New Zealand-Belgian author Christina Leunens titled Caging Spies. The novel caught the attention of Waititi and he took a liking to it, especially since he himself is half-Jewish and half-Maori. Waititi has frequently described New Zealand as a racist country and a lot of negative comments about Jews you hear in this film are comments Waititi himself heard. So if anyone is alarmed with the Anti-Semitism they hear, basically it’s what has been said in the past and what was common belief in the past. Both the film and the novel also touch on a lot of things and experiments the Nazis used to do in the past. They may not have successfully cloned humans, but they did experiment with it. Fraulein Rahm may have shocked us in saying she had fifteen children, but there were women who bred constantly for creating more Aryan children. That scene where Yorki becomes a soldier and the scenes where the children have to fight as Germany was losing is also a disturbing truth. The Hitlerjugend was created to raise the boys to become soldiers as they reach adulthood but when it became clear Germany was losing, the Hitlerjugend became soldiers in vain to keep the Nazi regime alive. Those scenes were possibly the biggest non-comedic scenes of the film.
This film concept of a Hitler Youth having Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend is a concept that’s supposed to fail, but somehow it works like a charm. One thing we should keep in mind is that the Adolf Hitler we see on the screen is not the Adolf Hitler we know but the Adolf Hitler in Jojo’s mind. This Adolf who’s idiotic, incompetent, immature and even jealous represents the boy’s feelings of nationalism and there are many times he’s pushed to confront his feelings or even question them. In the end it’s clear Adolf is nothing but a bad influence on him. The film does not shy away from the anti-Semitic attitudes most of the Hitler Youth had, albeit making it look comedic.
The story is also a case where that grenade accident is the best thing to happen to Jojo. Being too injured to be involved with the Hitler Youth, it’s his mother Rosie that reminds him of the truth about love and beauty and what being a child should be. It’s also Elsa who is best at teaching Jojo about love and how it helps to overcome prejudices. Not to mention that Jews are people too with similar feelings like Jojo. It’s also where we learn the true heroes are Jews like Elsa who survived and Rosie who was hanged for being part of the resistance. Even that scene where Klenzendorf is captured by the Russians and about to face execution is powerful. There he admits to Jojo that being left out of the Nazi Youth was the best thing for him and his mother is the true brave one, and Jojo should have no part in any of the imprisonment or executions the Nazis like him are about to face.
SPOILER WARNING: This paragraph has details of the end. The ending is a unique situation. Elsa experiences the freedom she never thought she’d get in her lifetime. Even though she learns Jojo lied about who won. That dance scene is important as you have two children. One is Jewish and the other was a Nazi boy who first saw her as someone to bully but fell in love with her. Elsa lucked out from being captive from the Nazis. Jojo lucked out as he isn’t seen as a Nazi and he’s spared by Russian and American soldiers. Elsa lost her family and the boy she loves. Jojo lost his family. They have nothing but each other but they dance together. That’s a powerful scene, especially as Rosie talks of how dancing means freedom. The dance represents those two free orphans who lost a lot but both won in the end.
I have to give top acclaim to director/writer Taika Waititi. He takes an oddball story about a Hitler-obsessed Nazi child and turns it into a story with both humor and heart. He doesn’t shy away from humor that punches. It doesn’t punch as brutal as some of the humor from South Park or The Family Guy, but it does punch and somehow can even make those that claim they’re ‘woke’ laugh. Even the Anti-Semitic comments. I would describe this as ‘evil genius,’ but it’s the ‘evil genius’ of the best kind! Also deserving of acclaim is Roman Griffin Davis playing the little protagonist. This is his first-ever film role but he holds the film together from start to finish and masters it with near-perfect comedic charm. I expect to see more of him in the future. Back to Waititi, he was also excellent in playing the idiotic Hitler. Playing Hitler as an idiot is a big gamble in any film. I’ve seen portrayals of idiot-Hitlers before and most fail. Waititi’s Hitler works like a charm in this film.
Also worthy of acclaim is Scarlett Johannson. She does an excellent job of portraying a mother who’s hurting of loss of her husband and daughter, knows that her days are numbers as being a member of the resistance, and trying to get her son to adopt human values and lose his Nazi ways. Thomasin McKenzie is also excellent as Elsa, the girl who is determined to make Jojo see the light, but knows she’s up for a big challenge. Archie Yates is also a delight as Yorki, Jojo’s best friend, who adds in the right comedic touches. Additional humorous performances include Sam Rockwell as the depressed Captain Klenzendorf and Rebel Wilson as the ruthless, but colorful, Fraulein Lahm.
Jojo Rabbit also has a lot of standout technical efforts too. There’s the editing from Tom Eagles, the costuming from Mayes Rubio, the set designs from Ra Vincent and Nora Sopkova and the music from Michael Giacchino. Actually the mix of Giacchino’s score and classic rock songs, including some with a German-language version from the original artist, fit the film perfectly.
At the end, you will be convinced that Jojo Rabbit is the ideal comedy to be having in a hostile time right now. I will guarantee that even the ‘superwoke’ on Twitter who are set out to vilify any famous person who makes even the slightest off-color comment will be laughing too.