A beautiful tale of love comes from one of recent history’s most terrible eras of hate. Jojo Rabbit is told in a way that could only be done by Taika Waititi, and has become one of the most misunderstood films of the year.
Adapted from the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit tells the story of a 10-year-old member of Hitler’s Youth whose life is turned upside down when he learns his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in the walls of their home.
Roman Griffin Davis makes his big screen debut as our young star, Jojo. The boy is bright-eyed and optimistic and believes every lie the Nazis feed him. His long-suffering mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), does her best to help him understand the realities of the world, but always has to tread carefully to hide the fact that she does not fall in line with the Party. Jojo, though, doesn’t get it. It is 1944 and he fully believes Germany is on the verge of winning the war. And most importantly, he believes Germany should.
One of the side effects of Jojo’s “true belief” is that he has conjured up an imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi). Audiences seem to have trouble with this characterization of Hitler. He is clearly a Bad Man, but some of his terrible qualities are expressed through silliness and play. This is one of the ways many viewers have missed the point. This is the version of Adolf Hitler that resides in the mind of a 10-year-old child. Of course he’s a little silly and barbecues unicorns and makes jokes about blaming things on Churchill. He is a child’s imagining. It’s not the actual Hitler and it isn’t the Hitler we understand and know. Waititi’s portrayal is actually quite genius. He is beguiling, spinning the truth for this boy who spends much of the film working out the clear gap between what he believes Hitler would say and what he feels in his heart is right.
Jojo spends his days participating in activities for Hitler’s Youth. He is surrounded by Nazi leaders that include Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf, Alfie Allen as his right hand, Finkel, and Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm. They say all the indoctrinating things they’re supposed to say to the kids, but it is clear that they know it’s all a lie. Klenzendorf in particular is haunted by the memories of bad decisions and by the knowledge that he was not strong enough to stand up and say no when the Party came calling. He drinks his guilt away and keeps toeing the line, even while it eats at him. At this point, so many years into the war and with no clear end in sight, what else would he do?
Jojo misses the hints because he is very literal. When someone tells him the Jews have hidden horns growing out of their heads, he believes it. And when Fraulein Rahm says burning books is good, he’ll believe that too. For the audience who knows where this is all going and understands the truth behind the words, it is important to see Nazis who know they’re doing wrong, but also know there will be no redemption for them, and they wouldn’t deserve it anyway.
Then there is Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, Jojo’s assumed nemesis. McKenzie is an incredible talent who is exceptional in quiet roles like last year’s Leave No Trace. And in Jojo Rabbit, she gets the chance to show how much she has matured as an actress. Elsa still has some of her sweetness, but she has known great loss and carries grief and fear as constant companions. She plays with Jojo’s fears, not just to amuse herself, but to make a point about the ridiculous things he believes. As they spend more time together, a friendship seems inevitable, but such a friendship would be very dangerous for both of them and so Elsa knows she has to proceed carefully.
Taika Waititi is a brilliant storyteller and he tells the story of Jojo Rabbit with such care that it is easy to dismiss as “light” or “fluffy.” The truth, though, is that it is neither. The town may be the color of cotton candy, and there are plenty of laughs – especially when Jojo gets together with his way-too-cute best friend, Yorki (Archie Yates) – but the pastels and the sunlight and the fun times aren’t real. They mask the truth, that this is a country at war, that its citizens are committing atrocities against their fellow countrymen, and that everything that seems good is about to collapse. Waititi takes what we know about World War II and Adolf Hitler and Nazis, and he uses that knowledge to tell a story that isn’t about redemption for a bunch of adults who chose their path.
Jojo Rabbit uses satire to communicate its message, and satire is hard for some to grasp. This isn’t a film that apologizes for or explains Nazis. It doesn’t try to say, “Yeah, but some of them were good guys.” The director is half Jewish, after all. Instead, he uses humor and drama to skewer the inhuman, not to humanize them. And in the process, he reminds us that we can do better for our children. We don’t have to pass on the hate to the next generation. There is time to help them do better and be wiser than we have.
Each of Taika Waititi’s six feature films have dealt on some level with themes of love. Jojo Rabbit is the most poignant and beautiful of them all.