- Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Jojo Rabbit.”
- “Jojo Rabbit” may have its critics, but it’s a feel-good film that uses comedy to deliver a powerful message.
- Taika Waititi’s film is a perfect example of how comedy can be more effective than drama when it has something to say.
- However, “Jojo Rabbit” also so much more than just an “important” film – it’s a brilliantly-made, clever piece of cinema, too.
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Taika Waititi’s film is a comedy about a kid who has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend. It’s also a drama about a young boy in Hitler’s youth army discovering his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home, and soon questioning everything he has been taught as a young Nazi.
The blend of these two premises, one wacky and zany, one serious and heartfelt, has proved jarring for some.
But due to the seamless combination of the two and a perfectly-judged tone, there is a hell of a lot to appreciate about Oscar-nominee“Jojo Rabbit” – a film that’s exactly what we need right now.
Comedy is more powerful than drama
Since Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” his Hitler-Mussolini satire, Hollywood has often used laughter to sound sirens.
There’s something more attractive about a comedy with something to say than a drama with something to say. With the latter, one can often feel lectured or moaned at – and while the films themselves are often well-made dramas, they can often be a bit of a chore to watch.
How many times have you through Netflix, looked at one of those films, thought “I’m really not in the mood for something heavy,” and chosen something else?
The nature of a film like “Jojo Rabbit” is more appealing. We get to enjoy an entertaining, feel-good movie full of laughs – but then get to feel good about ourselves afterwards knowing we’ve also consumed the important message of the picture.
In a film like “Jojo Rabbit,” the juxtaposition of comedy mixed with serious subject matter means the message hits home harder. We feel the sadness and severity with greater impact having just laughed.
I never found this jarring – I just it found powerful and expertly executed.
But don’t take my word for it. One of the masters of satire, the legendary Mel Brooks, loves “Jojo Rabbit.”
Brooks directed his own Hitler comedy in 1967 – “The Producers.”
“I want to say, I just saw ‘Jojo Rabbit,’ and it’s really a terrific and eloquent and beautiful picture,” he said during appearance at the AFI Awards.
“Taika, where are you? You did a great job. Even as an actor, you were good, which is hard!”
That’s pretty high praise coming from one of the inventors of mainstream satire, but Brooks understands that laughter is the way to tackle the issues of hate and fascism.
“If you stand on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you never win,” he added. “That’s what they do so well: they seduce people. But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter, they can’t win. You show how crazy they are.”
Abraham Foxman (national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League and himself a Holocaust survivor) concurs with Brooks’ sentiment.
Foxman told Vanity Fair: “Prejudice is so irrational that reason doesn’t necessarily work. We need to find more creative, imaginative ways to deal with it.”
“Jojo Rabbit” shows how utterly silly the Nazis were (though also shows their evilness and nastiness, too) and ridicules them completely.
The Gestapo scene, one of the very best scenes of the year in any film, summarises this perfectly. Stephen Merchant’s Gestapo Officer Deertz searches Jojo’s home for hiding Jews but gets caught up in the Nazi greeting protocol – he and his fellow officers introduce themselves with a “Heil, Hitler” to each and every person in the room. “Heil, Hitler” is said 31 times in the scene.
It’s funny as hell, but completely responsible in its storytelling
Abraham Foxman also told Vanity Fair that he was moved by the film’s storyline, particularly because he was also, like Elsa, hidden from the Nazis as a child (by a Polish Catholic Nanny).
He thoroughly believes that the movie takes what Vanity Fair calls “the horror of extremisim” very seriously.
“It’s a satire, but the ‘reality’ is a mother is risking her life and her child’s life by protecting and hiding a Jewish child,” he said. “We don’t just go into fairyland. Satire is risky, but reasonable and rational doesn’t change bigots. For those who are inclined to follow bigotry, maybe satire can expose the ridiculousness of what it’s all about.”
There was a worry that “Jojo Rabbit” could have been tone-deaf, a la the James Franco/Seth Rogen comedy “The Interview.” However, Waititi, being Maori-Jewish, avoids any sense of this and his script (adapted from Christine Leunens’ novel “Caging Skies”) is as equally heartfelt and touching as it is broadly funny.
It mocks the nazis, yes, but Waititi takes his central characters and their plights seriously.
Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), the Jewish girl hiding in Jojo’s cupboard, is the soul of the film. While initially carving up a love-hate relationship between Jojo and Elsa, Waititi makes it clear that we are on Elsa’s side. We feel her frustration stuck in makeshift room-in-a-wall in a house in the middle of Germany, feel claustrophobic with her, and our hearts break as we find out more about her back story. We share her anger at Jojo’s initial blind disgust of her, as well as his later lie about the victors of the war.
Meanwhile, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) has one of the most grown-up and powerful character arcs in 2019 cinema. At first, Jojo is a naive little boy who is “massively into swastikas” and considers his imaginary pal Hitler (played by Waititi) to be his best friend.
But when he discovers Elsa in his own home and begins to learn more about the girl, he realises that all he has been taught as a young Nazi may not be true. He soon begins to see Elsa for what she is – a human being – rather than the monster the Nazis painted her kind out to be.
Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, who admittedly shouldn’t have been nominated) and the closest thing he has to a father figure, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, who should have been nominated), play a role in teaching Jojo to be kind and to steer away from the vile teachings he’s been surrounded by his entire life.
But, crucially, and rightfully, it’s Elsa who does the heavy lifting. She is the one who truly sets Jojo on the road to becoming a better person. And it absolutely had to be Elsa for the power of the message, and of Jojo’s character arc, to strike home: the oppressed teaches the oppressor.
Jojo asks Elsa to draw where Jews live, so she draws a picture of Jojo’s head, saying: “That’s where Jews live” – Jojo is told, whether he quite believes it yet or not, that his entire idea of what Jews are is nonsense inside his head, put there by the indoctrinating Nazis he’s been brought up around.
Later, she tells Jojo: “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”
She cuts to the core of why he believes what he believes – because he’s been taught it, and because he wants to belong. There are no other reasons. From this line onwards, Jojo knows his beliefs are built on nothing but weak and false premises. Soon after this, his world-view crumbles and he realises the truth. Elsa is nothing but a good person. The Nazis are wrong.He is wrong.
Obviously, I have never been through anything nearly as horrific as Elsa. But the lesson that Elsa teaches feels personal to me because I’ve seen it work in real life.
A few years ago, a person who knew I was gay expressed some pretty bigoted opinions about gay people. But when I asked him why he didn’t like gay people and had such negative views around them, he couldn’t answer. “It’s wrong, innit,” was the only response I got.
Once we continued talking, it was clear that he had these views only because he had grown up in a small, religious town where these sorts of views were the norm. Once I confronted about those views, they seemed nonsensical and based on nothing but blind ignorance – to me and to him. He soon realised that his opinions were baseless and created from indoctrinated stereotypes that he had no evidence to believe were true.
“Jojo Rabbit” is precisely the sort of movie that should be taught in schools because it shows kids how to think for themselves, and to not just assume that what is going on around you is true or right. It teaches kids to educate themselves and to listen to the oppressed rather than the oppressors. Most of all, it teaches kids to be kind, which, in this current climate, cannot be understated.
‘Jojo Rabbit’ is way more than just a feel-good satire
All of the above sounds pretty saccharine – not that that the film is, mind (save the only heavy-handed moment in the film – when we see literal butterflies in Jojo’s stomach).
It would be easy to dismiss this film as sweet-natured with hints of biting comedy and a crusading, campaigning message that is equally relevant today.
Those sorts of films can often be cloying and, to put it bluntly, not that great. Take the recent movie “Last Christmas,” for example – another picture that preached acceptance and anti-intolerance as one of its key themes.
While it had its heart in the right place, the film bombed and was a bit of a sugar-sweet mess. It couldn’t find the right tone or balance, and wasn’t smart enough to execute it.
But “Jojo Rabbit” concentrates just as much on being a good film in its own right as it does on its message.
One of the most intelligent parts of “Jojo Rabbit” is when it subconsciously teaches audiences a cinematic language with Scarlett Johansson’s shoes. We see close-ups of Rosie’s shoes as she dances on a wall. Shown from a child’s perspective, this doesn’t, at first, seem to bear that much significance.
But, later, again from a child’s height and perspective, we are taken on a walk around town when he bumps into a pair of hanging feet wearing those same shoes. We immediately know it’s Jojo’s mother without ever seeing any part of her past her legs.
Jojo hugs her legs and attempts to tie up her shoelaces (another recurring visual theme), but fails. It’s a heartbreaking and shocking reveal that worked because Waititi and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare subconsciously taught us to look out for this visual motif earlier in the film.
At the end of the movie, Elsa wears these shoes (the first time she wears shoes in the entire film) as she dances – signifying her liberation. Jojo bends down and successfully ties her shoe laces – his character arc complete.
It’s intricate, clever stuff from Waititi that seems obvious when spelled out but, as with all great filmmaking, you don’t even notice upon first viewing. It’s a visual representation of the subtle skill wielded by Waititi in a film that wears its not-so-subtle humour on its sleeve.
It will continue to be under-appreciated, no doubt, but there is a reason the movie earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
“Jojo Rabbit” is not just the feel-good film we need right now. It’s also just a really, really good movie.