TL;DR – A very ambitious film and while it does not quite reach the lofty goals it sets for itself, I give it credit for trying when so many others don’t bother.
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
I have seen films that have embraced absurdism before, I have seen films that have explored World War Two before, I have never seen an absurdist film about World War Two before, well that is until today. This is a film that honestly I would have loved to be in the pitch meeting for because I have no idea how the hell it got greenlit even though I am glad that it did.
So to set the scene, in the midst of WW2 and living in Nazi Germany we find a young boy called Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis). In the aftermath of his sister dying and his father being away “fighting on the Italian front”, he spends his days at a Deutsches Jungvolk Hitler Youth training camp with his friend Yorki (Archie Yates) run by a very nonplussed Wehrmacht Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). When recovering from an accident involving a grenade Jojo discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a Jewish girl called Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic, which brings Jojo into a moral quandary not helped by the suggestions from his good friend Hitler (Taika Waititi).
The last piece of cinema that I have seen that took a more comical look at World War Two was Hogan’s Heroes or maybe ‘Allo ‘Allo!. But quite often people steer clear because of the brutal legacy of the Nazis and the Holocaust which is something we are still dealing with in society today. So if you are going to come hitting in that direction you are going to need to be doing it with a lot of care so that your farce does not become irreverence and if you are going to do that then, of course, Taika Waititi is a perfect choice.
There were many things I was expecting with Jojo Rabbit, the over the top Hitler, one-note Nazi’s etc. However, one thing I was not expecting was that just about every character has more layers to them that what first appears. Take Rosie, she is on the surface a very stern and protecting mother, indeed the first time we really get to know her is when she is kicking Klenzendorf in the groin for injuring her son. However, we soon find that this is a mask that she wears to get through the war and to protect the ones she loves. Indeed, Klenzendorf himself starts as this stereotypically incompetent Nazi, but that too is a shield that he wears. Because there is this character depth, it makes those moments of grief hit that little bit harder. Of course, there are still some very one-note characters like Rebel Wilson’s Fräulein Rahm but they are there more for comic relief.
The real core of this film is the relationship between Jojo and Elsa. For Jojo, all of his identity is tied up in his Nazi worship, part of this is because of the propaganda and part of this is a surrogate for the grief over losing his sister. However, Elsa is both the embodiment of his hate, a threat to his family, but also a repudiation of everything he holds dear. I don’t think it was a coincidence that when we first meet Elsa from Jojo’s perspective she is framed in the cinematic language of a horror film. Their relationship ebbs and flows throughout the film as Jojo falls into a deeply conflicted love with Elsa while trying to keep it all a secret. All of this is framed around the very real danger that exists when the Gestapo could come to your door at any moment. It can be really difficult for young actors to reach the emotion points that they need to in a film like this but I have mad respect for Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, and Archie Yates for reaching that depth. Taika Waititi has a history of bringing the best out of young actors because he uses the talents of Rachel House and it really shows her.
Tonally this film is a lot to get used to. It shifts from deeply sincere to absurd and back again so fast that you can very easily get tonal whiplash. For me, that juxtaposition never gets so vast that it breaks, but I could see how it could for other people. You do feel very uncomfortable laughing along with Hitler but much like how Thor Ragnarok used that humour to explore the effects of colonialism, Jojo Rabbit uses it to explore fascism and its effect on society. Does it always work, no, but it is an ambitious shot and frankly the fact that it mostly works is a real credit to the whole production.
In the end, do we recommend Jojo Rabbit? Yes, I think we would. It is an uncomfortable watch at times. But it manages to thread the needle between humour and pain, and that is no easy job. If you liked Jojo Rabbit, can I also recommend to you Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople which shows the same level of charm, pain, and joy.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Jojo Rabbit
Directed by – Taika Waititi
Screenplay by – Taika Waititi
Based on – Caging Skies by Christine Leunens
Music by – Michael Giacchino
Cinematography by – Mihai Mălaimare Jr.
Edited by – Tom Eagles
Production/Distribution Companies – Fox Searchlight Pictures, TSG Entertainment, Defender Films, Piki Films & Disney
Starring – Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant & Archie Yates
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: PG; Germany: 12; New Zealand: M; United Kingdom: 12A; United States: PG-13
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