jojo rabbit

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by/quentin norris
Fox Searchlight Pictures/108 mins

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One of my favorite lessons on filmmaking came from Peter Bogdanovich while he was teaching Directing at the film school I was attending.  While praising his friends and collaborators, Orson Welles and Wes Anderson, he mentioned that both were filmmakers who simply saw the world in a different way than anyone else and that state of mind bled perfectly into their own work.  Orson Welles was the only one who could make an Orson Welles picture, because although Peter would question why he would place the camera at a certain angle while shooting, Orson would always reply that the angle didn’t seem strange to him at all.  Similarly, Wes Anderson’s singular vision never feels like it’s trying too hard because the wry style simply comes naturally to him.  It’s what he sees when he opens his eyes and moves through the world.

Taika Waititi is a filmmaker whose work has been compared to Anderson’s frequently, and I think it all boils down to the same philosophy.  Taika Waititi simply sees the world in a way that you or I never could.  His vision cannot be replicated, and when replication is attempted, the strings are more than visible, and the insincerity rings like a deafening bell.  It’s also why Waititi has become such a sought after filmmaker.  We crave new ways to see the everyday world around us, and Waititi has been holding his kaleidoscope to our eyes through multiple projects, with Eagle Vs. Shark, Boy, What We Do In The Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Thor Ragnarok, he finds the humanity in the odd worlds and sense of humor constructed by his mind.  Each film has a loving, handcrafted, DIY look and feel that pushes itself and evolves with each subsequent addition, most recently with his largest budget yet by providing the most successful entry in Marvel’s Thor series, while still finding a way to bring his heartfelt sense of humor to the mega-franchise.  Through the success of Ragnarok, Waititi was granted his biggest challenge yet, one even more intimidating than a billion-dollar franchise film: bringing his absurdist trademark to Nazi Germany in World War II.

Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a ten-year-old boy growing up with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) in a small town in Nazi Germany.  To Jojo, life during wartime is grand.  He’s oblivious to what’s going on around him, and only knows what he’s told by his superiors, especially Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a disgraced Nazi soldier who is only fit to train children after losing an eye in battle.  Jojo is blindly patriotic to Germany and idolizes Hitler, who he envisions as his imaginary best friend (Taika Waititi) who helps guide Jojo through life.  But after a freak grenade accident while away at camp, Jojo’s life slowly begins to fall apart and he has to come to terms with the fact that his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) and that everything he thought he knew may be wrong.

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At first, it may seem as though someone like Taika Waitit is the last person who would be right to adapt the bleak Christine Leunens novel, Caging Skies, but as it turns out, this film has been a dream passion project for Taika for years now, long before finding indie and mainstream success.  There have been countless tragic films set in the shadow of the Third Reich, and a more straightforward adaptation already ran the risk of sinking into the obscurity of just another WWII drama, but even outside of that risk, Taika’s specific brand of comedic and heartfelt storytelling is perfectly suited for the tale of Johannes Betzler and his coming of age.  Jojo Rabbit follows in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, in lampooning fascists and turning their ideals into a laughing stock.

Taika’s particular brand of childlike absurdity is all over the film, giving it not only an energy that is all its own, but also a worldview that helps put into perspective the pure nonsense of such a hateful regime as the Third Reich.  Filled with his signature sight gags, a delightful sense of comedic timing, and anachronistic use of music, Waititi breathes fresh air into the World War II story and pulls off a surprising feat of finding connections between our modern world, and Jojo’s, highlighting the eerie similarities.  Jojo Rabbit comes out swinging in this regard with one particularly biting and effective piece of film editing from Tom Eagles and Yana Gorskaya, in which an excited Jojo runs screaming “Heils” to his imaginary version of Hitler while a German rendition of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles plays and is intercut with footage of real-life Nazi rallies, comparing the movement to nothing more superficial than teenage fawning over a sugary pop group.

That unchecked and unquestioned hero worship and idolatry is at the dead center of what Jojo Rabbit is digging at thematically, which it succeeds at with flying colors.  It’s easy to forget how impressionable we once were as children, and how easy it was to be coaxed into dangerous ways of thinking.  I remember a time in middle school when my parents realized I was being sold on anti-evolution propaganda from youth group role models that I looked up to and quickly were able to sit me down and talk to me to let me know that keeping my mind closed to scientific facts was a bad path to follow.  I remember feeling scared at that moment, realizing I’d almost let myself go down a rabbit hole there may have been no way out of. I know it’s not quite the same thing as being brainwashed by a fascist regime, but the sentiment remains the same, and I pondered that moment in my life while watching Rosie do her best to coax Jojo out of his fanatic love for a dictator who had no love for him.

The film’s examination of Jojo’s fanaticism and what it takes to reach the eventual revelation of how wrong he was and how firmly his philosophy had been built on blind hatred is written and executed brilliantly and presented with an absolutely warm and humanist performance from young Roman Griffin Davis.  It is remarkable to realize that this is his first role in a film period, and I’m thrilled to see what kind of future his career has.  The examination extends to the effect it has on his mother and Elsa as well, and while both characters deserve a bit more screen time than they’re given, both Thomasin McKenzie and Scarlett Johansson give utterly moving performances in each role.  The look in their eyes when Jojo unwittingly hurts them, either by exploding at the dinner table or casually insulting Judaism to Elsa’s face are absolutely heartbreaking.

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While Waititi does a remarkable job of establishing balance between goofy humor and moments of heavier gravitas, there are moments in which the balance begins to wobble, particularly when the anachronistic moments lean more heavily toward present day elements, such as a character saying “Oh em Gott” at one moment.  While it’s still funny, it feels a little too easy and simple for Waitit’s brand of clever wordplay.  But even when the movie stumbles it still finds ways to pick itself back up in some moments of purely thrilling visual storytelling, in particular a scene in which a party of Gestapo led by a rubber faced Stephen Merchant tear apart Jojo and Rosie’s home looking for Elsa.

Jojo Rabbit isn’t going to work for everyone.  Many have already been rubbed the wrong way by its sense of humor in the face of such dark material, but not all great satire works for everyone, and that is perfectly fine.  I was worried going in that I would have trouble accepting the dichotomy between the humor and the darkness, but I found myself completely under Waititi’s spell and I’m thrilled that a film like this has found life through the hands of such a caring writer and director.  I think that 2019 is the best year for a movie like Jojo Rabbit to be released.  It’s vision puts into perspective the parallels between now and then better than any other film has done recently.  It reminds us that humanity and life can survive the most oppressive of evils.  It helps us see the light at the end of the tunnel while we suffer through the darkness, but most importantly, it reminds us to dance.

 

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