The Second World War looms large as a key component of contemporary history, and it has of course provided inspiration for seminal works of visual art, cinema chief among them. Less often discussed is the propensity of lazy studio executives to predictably greenlight the odd subgenre of mostly mediocre faux-prestige films with a WWII theme that coincidentally happen to always be released around Oscar time. Critics dutifully predict they will see awards buzz, the notices are all very polite and respectful, a handful of nominations result with perhaps a win here and there, and the films are then gently shelved to never be viewed or referenced again outside of a high school history course.
It is to the immense credit of Taika Waititi, the writer, director and supporting star of Jojo Rabbit, that he strives to do something different with this type of material, though he does not fully avoid the fog of war that is its inherent risk. Jojo Rabbit is told from a child’s perspective, in this instance the ten-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (a fantastic Roman Griffin Davis), an eager war’s end recruit to the Hitler Youth, which is portrayed here as demented bizarro-world Boy Scouts. Jojo has a room plastered with Nazi propaganda, and he certainly talks the talk of a committed ideologue, spewing comments about the virtue of glory and the evil of Jews. In his heart however, Jojo is a lonely kid with a big imagination who simply likes the sense of belonging that the uniform and the regimentation give him. We see early on that he has a soft heart. His refusal to kill a rabbit, a sick exercise engineered by some sadistic older boys, earns him the jeering nickname of the film’s title. A drunk (yet subversively sympathetic) Sam Rockwell oversees the contingent as a one-eyed officer working well below his paygrade, while minor parts for Alfie Allen and Rebel Wilson round out this motley crew. My fear was that the whole film would take on the too-obvious tone of these opening scenes, which paired the cheekily subversive with the obvious and overdone (a bit of business that paired the Beatles singing in German with actual footage of Nazi rallies was a low-point for me). Those characters and that tone linger throughout, but the narrative shifts to a more specific theme.
Before we touch on the film’s main struggle however, we need to deal with the Adolf in the room. Part of Jojo’s loneliness and vast imagination manifests itself in a most unusual imaginary friend: his own personal Hitler, played by Waititi himself. Most of the advertising and promotion of the film has leaned into the “Hitler buddy comedy” bit, and there is an undeniable oddness to scenes of Jojo running around and laughing with the Fuhrer, uniforms, medals and all. I was at first very ambivalent about this aspect of the film. No less a cinematic artist than Charles Chaplin, who portrayed a satirized Hitler in 1940’s The Great Dictator (among the finest of his works in the opinion of this reviewer) stated after the fact that had he known the full extent of the Nazi regime’s crimes, he would never have made the film and never would have portrayed the character. I actually think what Waititi is going for here mostly works, thanks to a committed performance and the fact that we wisely only see Hitler sparingly, and then only channeled through Jojo’s own mind. As Jojo matures and grows, his relationship with Hitler changes and sours. I know for some viewers the mere image of Hitler, particularly portrayed lightly, can be off-putting and nauseating. It will remain this film’s visual hallmark.
I earlier mentioned a tonal shift. We meet Jojo’s formidable and imaginative mother Rosie (a pitch-perfect Scarlet Johansson, nailing a German accent). From spreading anti-regime leaflets to slapping officers, Rosie models for her son a different path from his dreams of martial glory, telling him to stuff the politics, and warmly responding to his need for a mother’s affection. Her maternal instincts extend beyond her immediate family: a curious Jojo finds a secret door concealing the spunky Elsa (an excellent Thomasin McKenzie, who we knew was an actress to watch since 2018’s Leave No Trace), a teenage Jewish girl that Rosie is hiding even from her son. Watching these two young performers with a natural chemistry move from mutual suspicion and fear, to grudging acceptance and ultimately to concern and self-sacrifice is the true crux of the film and is a true joy to watch. There is a wit and tenderness to their time together that transcends the surroundings.
Which leads me into a final summation of the film … I did like it. Quite a bit. But what could have been excellent languishes for me in the realm of the “pretty good”. There’s much to recommend. As stated, the acting is stellar throughout. The color palette is consistently bright and bold, giving the film an unabashed immediacy. Waititi’s direction is punchy and confident, with interesting and well-staged framing, several instances of which linger still in my mind. So, what went wrong? It’s hard to succinctly summarize … in some ways it is more of a general feeling. Yes, the film is told from the viewpoint of a child, and one who (as the film opens at least) is sympathetic to his own understanding of the Nazi regime. Perhaps that is the reason why events never feel like they have the requisite weight to attain the desired emotional beats. A scene where Jojo’s house is searched by a Gestapo officer (Stephen Merchant looking like a Raiders of the Lost Ark reject) feels listless and without true tension. The occasional usage of rock music on the soundtrack is effective in some sequences and distracting in others. The screenplay and direction have not quite found the right balance between silliness and satire and more truthful and deeper emotions, though there are attempts.
And this film represents in essence one large “attempt”: an attempt to do something novel and interesting within a staid and conservative subset of film. That it mostly succeeds is due to the ingenuity and daring of a talented director and a stellar cast. Though I was left hoping for more, what they were able to bring forth does indeed serve as a breath of fresh air. The right tonal balance is very hard to strike with this material. That Jojo Rabbit has more hits than misses is its crowning achievement.
~Fr. Michael Carter