Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is a captivating combination of comedy and tragedy.
Jojo Rabbit is the story of a 10 year-old boy in Nazi Germany, trained to be dedicated to the cause, who finds a Jewish girl hiding in his house. Also, his imaginary friend is Adolph Hitler. Oh, did I mention it is a comedy? This could not have been an easy movie for writer/director/costar Taika Waititi to pitch (despite being Jewish, he plays the imaginary Hitler). Thankfully, he knew what he was doing.
Jojo Rabbit is funny and occasionally absurd. However, it does not look away from the awful things the Nazis did. Incredibly, horror and ridiculousness, tragedy and laughter, combine to create something surprisingly moving. This movie is a wonder.
Jojo lives with his loving, frequently absent, mother and desperately wants to defend Germany from their enemies. One day, he hears noises upstairs and finds a teenage Jewish girl. Terrified of what would happen if anyone found out, Jojo is forced to make difficult decisions that will forever change his life.
This story does not sound comic, yet Jojo Rabbit (loosely adapted from the 2004 novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens) is quite funny. Oddly, though it exaggerates in its characterizations, it never stops being believable. Therefore, its subject is never softened, even while we laugh. Jojo (played fantastically by the debuting Roman Griffin Davis) is a lovable kid, an innocent with no idea how evil the things he says are. His mother (played with exquisite heart and delicacy by Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson) does understand, but is careful not to completely burst her son’s bubble. Johansson’s performance is emblematic of the tonal balancing act Waititi achieves throughout the whole movie: sweet, yet worried. Smiling, yet angry.
The other significant role goes to Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, the Jew. McKenzie gave one of my favorite performances of 2018 in Leave No Trace, playing a young woman taking care of her father as they live illegally in a state park. Here she is also portraying a young woman living somewhere she is not supposed to be and required to be much wiser due to her circumstances. She is mad at people like Jojo, who blindly follow their hateful leaders. She pities him too, because she knows it is not his fault. Their scenes together are shockingly subtle. She plays a lot of notes without spelling them out, creating someone more complex than merely a scared Jew.
Though Jojo and Elsa are as different as could be, they are very similar. They both have had their lives destroyed by the Nazis and neither can possibly be free under their rule. Elsa’s life was derailed purely because she was born Jewish. For Jojo, he is not imprisoned or in obvious immediate danger. Yet, by filling his head with propaganda, they have eliminated his freedom. What each of them are experiencing is dreadful in its own way, even if only one of them is aware of it.
Taika Waititi has made something that is somehow heartwarming and heartbreaking. In the end, his message seems to be: love, friendship, hope and bravery is what defeats hatred, not more hatred. He finds a way to generate humor while never trivializing what people like Elsa actually had to go through. As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I understand why some have been offended by it. Any attempt to find amusement from an event so terrible and so personal to many is going to anger some. It is a difficult concept to accept and not an easy watch. I am absolutely glad I did. This is one of the best movies of the year.
5 out of 5
Read more: ‘Judy’