"I gotta go, we're having Unicorn for dinner at my place tonight..."
Adapted from the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, Jojo Rabbit is a coming-of-age story set in the final days of World War II Germany. Directed by Taika Waititi, the film follows a young boy, Jojo, who is part of the Hitler Youth, and discovers that his mother is a resistance member who is secretly hiding a Jewish girl in the family home. The film follows the boy's journey from blind fanaticism to the realization that life is about love and not hate.
Taika Waititi captures this journey through the innocence of the main character Jo Jo (Roman Griffin Davis), who is only 10 years old and still doesn't know how to tie his shoes, let alone understand what is truly occurring in Nazi Germany. His actions are never excused; however, the film shows us a child's perspective and how easy it is to get a group of people to hate one another. We're seeing it today as children mimic the same political views and biases of their parents. Even total innocence can be corrupted by the hatred in the culture around it.
The anachronistic opening of Jojo Rabbit shows how Hitler is perceived by his followers. You see footage from Hitler's various propaganda videos synced with The Beatle's German version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand." It's jarring, but a bold choice to signify how followers see leaders and dictators and how the Hitler Youth sees Hitler as an icon.
While the film's style is more artistic (a la Moonrise Kingdom) and satirical than most war films, it uses Waititi's dark comedic style to point out the absurdity of bigotry and Nazism as a whole. Satire can be challenging to pull off, but Jojo Rabbit does it well. This isn't Waititi's first foyer into such critiques either. His critically acclaimed Thor: Ragnarok pointed out the blunders of colonialism through comedy as well.
What makes Jojo Rabbit shine is the film's ability to be funny until it's suddenly not. It is by no means a feel-good comedy, and it's certainly not meant to be. I found myself very uncomfortable during many parts of the film, and that's the point. We should not be comfortable or complacent in the face of bigotry.
The film begins with Hitler's Youth at a summer camp and is set to music indicative of such; however, it is not a typical summer camp. This camp is where children are brainwashed and indoctrinated into the Third Reich and Hitler's false promises of an "Aryan race" and a "Final Solution." As Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) begins drawing a Jewish man on the chalkboard, he is depicted as a demonic entity and inhuman.
The children literally believe an entire group of people to be monsters in need of slaying. They are told that they have pure Aryan blood in their veins and that the youth are Germany's future. Later in the film, when confronted with seeing Jewish people in real life, they have such a cognitive dissonance that they do not understand or believe them to really be Jewish because they look too normal.
When Jojo first talks about killing, he can't even snap his fingers to indicate how fast it would be done, showing once again that he's too young and naïve to truly understand the gravity of his words and actions. To the kids at camp, fighting for the Third Reich is the same as playing cops and robbers. It's as simple as good versus evil, and they have been told repeatedly who the bad guys are.
This is terrifying because things like this have happened and continue to occur in our world: wars, genocides, child slaves and soldiers, and children being indoctrinated into causes they don't even understand. This film will make you smile and laugh because you have to or you'll cry.
Even the way that Jojo receives his nickname is indicative of his childhood innocence being killed before him when he refuses to snap the neck of an innocent rabbit just because he is ordered to. An older Nazi Youth at the camp kills the rabbit and taunts Jojo by calling him a scared little rabbit as well.
As much as he tries to fit in and believe in what he's been taught, he doesn't have the heart to ever go through with these horrible things. There's still goodness in him, and his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), does her best to encourage him to keep his childhood as she shelters him from the war as long as she can.
"You're not a Nazi, Jojo. You're a 10-year-old kid who likes swastikas and likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be a part of a club. But you're not one of them." - Elsa
The movie is filled with incredible performances from the entire cast, child and adult alike. Waititi is a hilariously hateable as the fictitious Hitler in Jojo's mind. At first, he is merely a caricature of the real Hitler and is more kind to Jojo as he sees him as their fearless leader and a hero of their country.
As the story progresses and Jojo begins to question the Third Reich and Hitler, Waititi's Hitler becomes more vicious and echoes the speaking style and speech delivery of the Hitler we know from history. Their interaction drives the inner conflict in Jojo and gives us memorable lines like "Fuck off, Hitler!"
The heart of the film resides in the film's two main female protagonists, Rosie and Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). I believe this performance to be one of Johansson's best. She shows the sadness, anger, frustration, and bravery of resistance members and citizens during the war just trying to survive and do what they can to protect their family. The heartbreak she feels surrounding Elsa's confinement and her own son's indoctrination into the fascism she is fighting against is palpable in every scene.
Thomasin McKenzie's Elsa is both vulnerable and formidable. Her scenes and dialogue are powerful and challenge the ideas that Jojo believes to be truths. It is in these moments the two spend together that we see the most growth from Jojo. He slowly begins to care for and love someone he is supposed to hate, and it is entirely believable thanks to Thomasin's performance.
Unlike other war films that focus on the darker notes of the Third Reich, Jojo Rabbit works in that it shows how even naïve children can and do perceive these horrible things as a justified reality. It shines a light on the dangers of conformity and extremism in a time where it's becoming too common. It's unconventional, dark, witty, and it's very Taika Waititi.
This is not the first or last time someone will choose comedy or satire to make a mockery of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, it's merely a different form than we have seen before. It's the heartfelt adaptation of an indigenous Jewish man.
At its core, the message of Jojo Rabbit is as pure as the heart of the child we are watching challenge his own biased thinking. It's a film that needed to come out now to remind people why it's "not a good time to be a Nazi" and why nationalism and blind fanaticism is dangerous.
The film's themes are universal. You could change the characters and time period to reflect the persecution of any group throughout history by another group or nation and the story would still have the same pull. It's not just another film about World War II, it's a film about cognitive dissonance. It's a film about love. It's a film about doing what we can. It reminds us that hatred can be unlearned, just as it is learned.
Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final.
- Rainer Maria Rilke
4.5 out of 5 Rabbits