Honestly, I didn’t know what to think about Jojo Rabbit (2019). I knew that it is critically acclaimed and generally well-received. It has a star-studded cast: Scarlett Johansson, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, and Sam Rockwell to name a few. It has won the top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was premiered, as well as many nominations and awards at the 92ndAcademy Awards and 77thGolden Globe Awards. Everything pointed towards a rememberable evening with breathtaking cinematography, witty dialogues, heart-wrenching plot twists and engaging film music. But I also knew that Jojo Rabbit is a comedy set in Germany during the second world war. That is why I was sceptical about whether I would like the film: How is one supposed to laugh about Nazi Germany and the pain of the second World War? How should a film portrait one of the most vilified historical figures and grant him, and history justice?
This controversial film is a coming-of-age story of a 10-year-old boy in Germany, who is a die-hard fan of the Führer and a wanna-be Aryan warrior. But his boyscout-styled military training proves very early that he stands out from his peers in many ways – he has a big heart and a strong sense of moral. He admires Hitler so much that he fantasises Hitler to be his imaginary friend (played by Taika Waititi). The imaginary Führer becomes his confidante, consultant and role model, a super-hero figure that boosts his confidence at moments of anxiety. However, his world as a Jew-hating Nazi shatters as he discovers that his mother is secretly hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa in a crawl space. Jojo is forced to confront a new reality, in which the much hated Jews are not monsters with fangs, as he has learned, but speaking and feeling individuals like himself. As Jojo slowly gets to know Elsa, he manages to break away from the ideology that permeates his upbringing and find his own voice amidst the suffering and chaos of war.
Indeed, I had mixed feelings about the film. During the first hour, I found it hard to appreciate the portrayal of Hitler, who is goofy and idiotic. His witty comments and positive relationship with Jojo make him adorable and almost lovable, and there lies my problem with the film: making him a slapstick figure normalizes the atrocity he inflicted on the world and destabilises his crown as the epitome of evil. That is one dangerous thing to do considering the neo-Nazi movements around the world. One might argue that Hitler in Jojo Rabbit is not Hitler per se, but the idealised version of him inside Jojo’s head, which is in turn a critique of the power of indoctrination and personal cults. Still, the portrayal of Hitler is a strong statement that is potentially inappropriate and offensive for a lot of people.
I found it equally hard to find the portrayals of the Hitler-Youths convincing. In one scene, Fräulein Rahm announces at the training camp, “Get your things together, it’s time to burn some books!,” which the children respond with euphoric jumps and cheers. The following scene shows how the officers and the kids throw papers into a burning pile of books hysterically as if they were throwing confetti at a party. Although I am aware of the purpose of the scene to satirize political fanaticism, I found it hard to reconcile the supposed humour with my own agony towards the historical event.
Although I was not entirely humoured by the unique humour of the film, my feelings towards the film changed completely as the film takes a drastic twist in the second half, from a satirical comedy to a heart wrenching story about the brutality of war. I am deeply touched by Rosie, mother of Jojo played by Scarlett Johansson. As a single mother, she juggles between her familial obligations as mother-father-in-one and her commitment to a dangerous political cause. As she falls victim to the dictatorship, Jojo Rabbit shows us that the film is not a happy-go-lucky kind of comedy – it has not forgotten its role as a powerful story about pain, suffering and the banality of the Third Reich. As the reality of bombs, hanging and killing sets in, the film takes a sharp turn from farce to sentimentality.
The coming-of-age story of Jojo is equally well-written and executed. Although he is bullied and teased by his peers for his good nature, his conscientiousness and bravery help him weather one life-threatening challenge after another. His emotional struggle between ideology and personal empathy is beautifully portrayed by Roman Griffin Davis. His relationship with his mother is at times complicated, but his loyalty and attachment to her is heart-warming. While the world is cruel, bloodless and desperate, Jojo Rabbit tells us that there is still hope and goodness so long as people like Jojo survives.
I only have one critique about Jojo Rabbit. The pretend German accent of the cast is over the top and unnecessary. It does nothing more than adding comical elements to the film and even then, it is not that funny. All in all, I would recommendJojo Rabbit. Its humour is bold and controversial, many people might even find it tasteless. But that a piece of art sparks a discussion about an important topic is in itself a stamp of excellence. I am really impressed by the emotional depth of the film in the second half. I respect the courage and genius of Taika Waititi in engaging with this heavy-hearted theme from a revolutionary perspective, as well as his versatility in adopting different tones and portraying different emotions. Jojo Rabbit is an unforgettable masterpiece that you should not miss in 2020!