It took a while for Taika Waititi’s newest film to make it to Australia (rude!) but it finally did, and I finally got it see it. What a treat!
One of my kid’s friends almost didn’t want to go, because she thought it was a sequel or something to Peter Rabbit, but we assured her that was not so. Instead, what we have her is zany yet powerful piece set in Nazi Germany, which has both an audacity and a sweet spirit that is hard to imagine in anyone else’s hands other than Taika Waititi. The guy has done an oustanding piece of work here, on a similar level to (although quite different in many respects from) Hunt of for the Wilderpeople.
Jojo Rabbit is a movie that is both funny and sad, and tells a story about young Jojo Betzler, a young German boy in the mid 1940’s who idolizes Hitler, and imagines him to be his friend and mentor. He loves the Nazis and goes to a camp as part of the Hitler youth. However, once there he finds he is too soft-hearted to prove himself by killing a rabbit. He takes fake Hitler’s advice to try to redeem himself, and ends up wounded and disfigured as a result.
Jojo’s efforts to find his feet again hit a bit speed bump when he discovers the Jewish teenager Elsa hiding behind the walls of his dead sister’s bedroom. It turns out his mother Rosie is a Jewish sympathizer and has been hiding her for some time. Jojo is terrified of Jews (and their supposed magical powers) and winds up blackmailed not to tell her that he knows the truth. A complicated situation ensues in which Rosie believes she is keeping the secret from her son, but in reality, Jojo and Elsa are developing their own relationship. The film goes on to show how his growing affection for Elsa and the persistent love of Rosie clash with the chaos of the world around him and ultimately transform his view of the world (and his view of the imaginary Hitler). It’s both hilarious and heartbreaking to see it play out.
Jojo is played by Roman Griffin Davis in his first credited film role, and the young actor does an outstanding job bringing the confused boy to life. He demonstrates the right mix of deadpan snark and earnest naivete to bring all of Jojo’s various emotional states to life: joyful exuberance in his naive devotion, quiet resentment over his mother’s apparent betrayal, his child-like love for Elsa, and more.
There are lots of other strong performances as well. Thomasin McKenzie plays Elsa, and brings both the fire and the vulnerability to make the character believable. Sam Rockwell plays Captain K, the officer who runs Jojo’s youth camp–after his turns in this and in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbings, Missouri has perfected the art of turning terrible people into compelling quasi-heroes. And Taika Waititi himself plays the movie’s utter goofball version of Hitler…or rather, Jojo’s perception of Hitler. It’s fascinating to see Hitler change as Jojo does, from a fill-in father figure to more of the monster that history knows him to be…albeit, still a child’s version of him.
But the real standout of this film as far as a performance is concerned is Scarlet Johansson, who delivers an Oscar-calibre performance as Jojo’s mother Rosie. Rosie is a woman who quietly resists the Nazi strangle-hold on her country, and is waiting for the day when the Allies will arrive and win the war. We see that a big part of her resistance is continuing to find joy, even in the nightmare-world that she lives in, and helping her “children” (both Jojo and Elsa) to do the same. There’s real authenticity and no sentiment in the way she does this, and we believe it when her love and consistency is able to win over Jojo time and time again, in spite of their political differences.
The movie ends with a quote from poet Rainier Maria Rilke, which says
Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final
In the context of the film, it seems to reflect the idea–expressed largely through Rosie–that the tragedy of today is not the end; there will be a reason to dance again, and since that is so, and especially because it can feel impossible to imagine this is true, we may as well dance now.