As someone who consumes a shocking amount of movies, it’s a very special feeling to come across a creator who just really seems to be operating at a similar wavelength to you. Someone who can try a variety of different things, and they all more or less land perfectly for you. And, I think I have found such a creator in Taika Waititi. The New Zealand director has been responsible for several of my favorite films of the last decade, making a series of stone-cold classics that I love whole-heartedly. And, he’s not afraid to try out different genres and styles, making films that all feel decidedly in his brand, while being very different. If you’re into a tragic and realistic tale of a young boy coming of age and realizing the world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, you can check out Boy. If you’re in the mood for in insanely funny and fresh take on vampires, What We Do In the Shadows is an absolute masterpiece. If you enjoy happiness and joy then there’s the Hunt for the Wilderpeople, an absolutely perfect film. Or, it you want to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe taken slightly less seriously, while lovingly embracing all the weird cosmic nonsense that so many films sky away from, Thor Ragnarok is a delight. So, I’m pretty much in the bag for whatever Waititi has in store for us, regardless of how insane a concept it sounds. Which, brings us to his latest film, which does kind of strain that idea. Because when I heard that Waititi was making a comedy about a Hitler Youth kid who has an imaginary friend version of Hitler, played by Waititi no less, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It seemed like an idea that was almost certainly doomed to fail, a razor-edge tight-rope walk that so easily could fall into a state of ridiculousness and offensiveness. And, while it did seem to fall into one of those two camps for a lot of people, it generally clicked with me, albeit maybe not as much as some of his other films.
The film tells the story of a young boy named Johannes, who everyone calls Jojo, living in Nazi Germany near in the end of World War II. He has been fully indoctrinated into the belief system of the Nazi regime, participating in the Hitler Youth, while living with his mother Rosie. He also has frequent adventures with his best friend, an imaginary and idealized version of Adolph Hitler who comes to teach Jojo how to be the best Nazi he could be. Which, is a struggle, because Jojo is a ten-year old boy after all, and he’s not really on board with some of the more gruesome realities of his country. This earns him quite a bit of ridicule from his peers, especially when he refuses to kill a rabbit in front of them all. And, to show them that he’s not a child anymore, with the help of Adolph, Jojo decides to take initiative and demonstrate how to throw a grenade while at the Hitler Youth camp, and in the process is involved in an explosion that greatly wounds him. he lives, but a whole side of his body is covered in scars, and he’s no longer allowed to be in the Youth organization, instead being assigned to recuperation, and smaller administrative jobs. And, while spending more time in his home, Jojo starts to notice strange sounds in his home. When he goes to investigate these sounds he’s led to his late-sister Inga’s room. And, these sounds are coming from a secret cupboard inside, where a friend of Inga’s, Elsa, is being hidden away. Because, much to Jojo’s horror, his mother is helping hide a Jewish person from being found by the Nazi’s.
Jojo wrestles with what to do, since his training requires him to turn Elsa in. But, he’s also aware that his mother would get in quite a bit of trouble if he did so. So, he ends up leaving Elsa be, spending time with her whenever Rosie is out of the house, for a variety of reasons. He’s fascinated by her, never actually having met a Jewish person before, he’s interested in writing a book about Jews so that he can get in the real Hitler’s good graces, and slowly but surely he also starts to develop a crush on the older girl. And all the while he finds himself in conflict with the teachings of his imaginary friend Adolph, and his burgeoning realization that none of what he’s been taught to believe makes any sense. All of which is pushed on by Rosie, who begins being more open with her subversive beliefs, trying to reach the son that she fears she has lost to hate. And things go on like that until Jojo and Rosie’s activities draw the suspicion of the Gestapo, who come and investigate the house. Jojo and Elsa are able to dodge their questions, with Elsa pretending to be Inga. But, the Gestapo also had their sights on Rosie, and end up executing her for treason, leaving Elsa and Jojo alone. Which is when the Third Reich starts to crumble, as Russian and American forces inch ever closer to their city. And, after a horrific battle, the Nazi’s of Jojo’s city are toppled, and he and Elsa are left with the question of what to do now that they’ve made it to the other side.
Jojo Rabbit is a fascinating film, and I think by and large I enjoyed it. It’s a very strange movie, and one that is putting quite a few people off, not very surprisingly. I’ve read some pieces by people who have had rather negative reactions to the film, and for a variety of reasons. Some find it a little too crass or disrespectful. Some have found it just not very funny. And some have found the whole message of the film a little too muddled, not quite justifying the big swings that it’s making. And, while I can see some of the points, I generally found myself connecting with the film way more than I was anticipating. Maybe I’m just a mark for Waititi’s specific brand of film-making, but I found the movie to be equal parts funny, heartbreaking, and uplifting. A very difficult thing to pull off. And yet, pulling of these disparate tones is kind of what Waititi is a master of. He’s also a master of getting terrific performances out of children, something that seems to be near impossible, but which Waititi has managed to capture in almost all of his films. It’s a movie that walks the razor’s-edge, and for me it managed to get to the other side intact, giving us a film that has a lot on its mind, and while it maybe doesn’t get it all out as eloquently as it would have liked, I think it does a respectable job.
I’ve seen some folks complain that the use of the antisemitism in the film is a little confounding. But, I feel like it was used perfectly. It was a stupid thing that barely made sense, only believable to children or people with the intelligence of children. Because that’s kind of what the whole movie is about, at least as I saw it. It’s a movie that points out that hate is patently absurd. Hating people because they’re slightly different than you makes no logical sense, it’s all about boogeymen and stupid stories, the kind of things that we should grow out of when we leave childhood. And yet, people keep this hate, these insane opinions and fears about those different than them, and pass them on to their children, keeping that fear and hate going. Jojo is an innocent child, but who has been surrounded by people telling him that if he wants to be like everyone else, he needs to fall in line and be a good Nazi, hating Jews and anyone different than him. And, he doesn’t question it. All the insane things he’s told about Jews are patently ridiculous, but he’s told that they’re real and deadly serious. And, because he’s a child, he believes it. Because hate is ridiculous. And yet, people fall into it all the time, often because it’s how they were raised. Hate is taught, not inherent, and some people get taught it from the time they were children, keeping these stupid thought going, passing from generation to generation like a genetic defect.
Jojo Rabbit was written and directed by Taika Waititi and released by Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk