Concepts like war and bigotry and large scale historical events seem so heavy that they require the experience and sophistication of an adult to fully comprehend. Yet, “Jojo Rabbit” manages to offer one of the most emotionally intelligent and moving meditations on the aforementioned through the perspective of a wide-eyed 10-year-old. Captured within the film’s run time is a celebration of life, in all of its joys, tragedies and hard-learned lessons.
What a phenomenal way to kick off Fantastic Fest 2019.
Fantastic Fest, homed in beautiful Austin, Texas, celebrated its 15th year with a rousing opening of “Jojo Rabbit,” followed by a Q&A with director and star Taika Waititi. Fantastic Fest is the largest genre film festival in the United States, with a proud history of celebrating innovative and thought-provoking cinema.
“Jojo Rabbit” is a World War II satire following the experience of a lonely German boy, Jojo (played by Roman Griffin Davis), whose worldview is turned upside down when he discovers his mother Rosie Betzler (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. The only voice he can turn to is his idiotic imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), as he confronts his blind nationalism and begins to question everything he understands about what it is to be a person.
The film is inspired by the novel “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens, with an adapted screenplay by writer and director Taika Waititi. Joining the cast as a hilarious troupe of Nazis include Rebel Wilson as Fräulein Rahm, Alfie Allen as Finkel, Stephen Merchant as Captain Deertz and Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf.
Let’s start by diving into the thorny bits. To be honest, a film with a dopey caricature of Adolf Hitler sets off some alarm bells in 2019. Aren’t we worried that a satire set in the time of one of history’s greatest tragedies may come off as disrespectful? Are we worried about humanizing, maybe even making likable, the most despicable of the world’s past leaders? Is this a good idea?
In his Q&A session following the film’s screening, Taika Waititi was asked what preparation went into the role of Hitler. His answer? None.
Waititi felt that he was not portraying Hitler, the factual and historical figure; rather, he is playing an idealized version of a figure that Jojo knows nothing about. He’s a character that is just as limited in reason and understanding as the 10-year-old who created him. Waititi didn’t hesitate to add that he found Hitler an idiot and felt that that came through in his portrayal. I bring this up because that is what allows “Jojo Rabbit” to work as a piece within a political space.
The thing about “Jojo Rabbit” is that it is a piece on humanity. It’s about what makes us human, what defines a good person, and the understanding that we are all human until outside forces make us into monsters. It is equally true that people are complicated and there is a little bit of darkness and light and loss of innocence in all of us.
Jojo is a kind boy, sweet and inquisitive. He’s not occupied with much else aside from having fun and being liked by his peers. The boy also has a strong streak of blind nationalism. He lacks the context of what politics are and only understands the party identity of the Nazis to be a sort of club that he must gain access to. He’s particularly susceptible to propaganda and imitates what he hears, just as any child would.
In his creation of the imaginary version of Hitler, Jojo seeks more than just a friend but acceptance. The Hitler of Jojo’s imagination is not the same as the dictator: This version only has the cognitive reasoning of a 10-year-old, he’s equally worried about things like looking cool and being part of the club, and he’s just as clueless. The pair make for goofy playmates, playing war with friends.
“Jojo Rabbit” can easily be defined by its playful tone. Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis make an incredibly lovable pair and I could watch them play all day. It’s bright and has a lightness to it that skims the surface of the serious subjects like a veil. At times, it’s like a game of tag in a mine field (that’s not far off from literal scenes in the film). It’s all fun and games, but the danger is ever present.
It’s hard to explain the tone of “Jojo Rabbit,” but we’ll opt for bittersweet chocolate. It is a candy and a treat, but there is still a sting to it. Something that sings a different note. For all the frolic and playfulness and joy that comes out of the film, sometimes the film comes to a grinding halt to harshly remind you of where you are. A day of fun is interrupted by unspeakable horror. It’s not the game that we thought it was.
A particularly elegant illustration of this, in the film, is a moment when Jojo’s own version of Hitler turns against him. For a moment, the dopey character slides away and is replaced by the only realistic moment in the film. Waititi’s Hitler adopts the hand motions characteristic to the historical figure and screams at Jojo; even in Jojo’s imagination the background noise of propaganda is present and it is doing its damnedest to hammer a frightening message home.
The battle of goodness and humanity is already waging within Jojo and it makes it painfully clear how susceptible any one of us could be. In his introduction of the film on Fantastic Fest’s opening night, Waititi said, “Children look to adults to be the smart ones, but then we go to war and we all become lunatics.” No child is born with agenda or prejudice, it’s taught. No child is born seeing someone as “other.” That is something that is learned.
Goodness, as we grow, is an ebbing and flowing thing, as well. Perhaps we consider the spirit of the law to be a baseline for goodness, but Johansson’s Rosie is a heroic example of doing what is right no matter what. Even in the face of peril. Most notably, Sam Rockwell’s Captain K gets an incredible moment.
For the entire film, Rockwell is a cynical but devoted Nazi captain. He is a key component of the mission to indoctrinate children. Despite his own doubts, Captain K has chosen his side in history. At the end of the film, Jojo (wearing the Nazi uniform that was thrust on him in the height of the confusion) approaches his old scout leader and in the flash of an instant Captain K sees something that Jojo could not and strips the boy of his uniform and sends him running. Moments later, the firing squad arrives to eliminate the remaining Nazis.
That moment of freeing Jojo from the symbolic bonds of the party and saving his life does not wholly redeem Captain K, but it does show that there is true goodness there.
Rockwell’s performance is one of many that absolutely shine. Merchant and Wilson are disturbingly hilarious as loyal party members. Johansson gives a beautifully and emotionally finessed performance as Jojo’s mother. The child actors are a triumph, and Waititi somehow shined bright from behind the infamous mustache. As an ensemble film, “Jojo Rabbit” is perfectly balanced and expertly assembled.
This film is more than just timely and sorely needed; it is a story that will always be needed. A perfect beginning to Fantastic Fest. I offer it the highest recommendation.
“Jojo Rabbit” premiered on Thursday, September 19, at the 2019 Fantastic Fest Film Festival. Catch the film in theaters everywhere on October 18!
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Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.