It goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: there are times when humor pulls us through or helps us recover from some of the most difficult moments in our lives. So it should come as no surprise that on rare occasions, people have attempted to frame things that took place during World War II in a comedic (or at least lighthearted) light. They aren’t mocking or otherwise making fun of tragedy, but it’s not uncommon to get to the heart of pain through laughter. One such example is Christine Leunens 2004 novel Caging Skies, which has now been adapted by writer/director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok) into the film Jojo Rabbit, which tells the story of a 10-year-old German boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) who is awkward and easily scared, but wants very much to become a member of the Nazi Youth to feel like a part of something bigger than himself and perhaps even be popular.
Jojo is a sweet, kindly kid who speaks the rhetoric of Nazis because that’s all he knows. He’s also being raised by a single mother (Scarlett Johansson), who instills in him a sense of kindness and self-reliance, even as he seems desperate for acceptance by the men and women in the sharp outfits teaching him about weapons, fighting and selective hatred. The element of Jojo Rabbit that may hit some people the wrong way is that, without a father figure to guide him on certain subjects, Jojo invents an imaginary friend in the form of a familiar-looking character named Adolf (played by the director). In the strictest sense, Waititi isn’t playing actual Hitler; he’s playing this boy’s perception of Hitler, who is loving and playful and full of great advice. Jojo isn’t really aware of the truly horrible aspects of Hitler and the Nazi party, so his perception of all of it (through which we see most of this movie) is skewed toward more innocent ideas. That being said, he is having it drilled in his head that the Jewish people are monsters, and he and his young friend Yorki (Archie Yates) are constantly comparing notes on just how dangerous Jews are.
So imagine Jojo’s terror when he discovers a teenaged Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie from last year’s Leave No Trace) living in the walls of his house, and his outright shock when he learns that his sainted mother allowed her to hide there. Because his mother would likely be killed for hiding a Jew, Jojo can’t turn the girl in, so he must find a way to co-exist with her in the house. Naturally, the two get to know each other, and Jojo has his very value system shaken and reshaped by actually interacting with someone he’d always considered the enemy.
As part of Jojo’s journey, he’s placed under the watchful eye of a disgraced Nazi commander played by Sam Rockwell and his sidekick (Rebel Wilson), and his home is visited by members of the SS, led by Stephen Merchant, who manages to be both hilarious and a genuine threat to everything going on in Jojo’s home. All the while, imaginary Hitler is feeding the boy advice that shockingly adjusts along with Jojo’s views, while still challenging his old way of thinking, which allows us to understand that the kid is torn but leaning in the right direction.
As much as Jojo Rabbit is being pitched as a comedy, the truth is that a great deal of the film is actually quite beautifully emotional, sometimes fully tragic, and treats the overriding realities of the war and the Holocaust with the reverence it deserves. What Waititi is going after is the nonsensical element of any hate group or collection of attitudes that results in prejudice. In many ways, watching the film move through its paces is like surgery, with the filmmaker carefully placing moments of laughter. There is no attempt to sanitize the realities of war or genocide, but that doesn’t mean that Jojo always fully understands the weight of everything he is being faced with.
In the end, it’s as surprisingly moving as it is challenging at times. At its core, this is the story of a boy’s world turned inside out and upside down when his ideals and his idols are torn down in rapid succession. It’s also not afraid to find moments when laughter helps tell its story and begin a bit of healing. This is a solid piece of unconventional filmmaking, and we need more filmmakers taking chances like this.
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