Fox Searchlight/108 min.
Quaint, dark, and a little puzzling, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is probably the best movie I have seen all year. Filled with the director’s signature, quirky writing, the film follows a Hitler Youth named Jojo (played by Roman Griffin Davis) whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, played with appropriate satire by the director himself.
The film toes a thin, shaky tightrope: how does an artist depict evil with appropriate weight and thought that should be put towards it?
Well, Waititi might provide the answer with this film. The Nazis here are ridiculous. Sam Rockwell plays Captain Klenzendorf, a disgraced officer who, after losing an eye, is deemed unfit for battle, and demoted to a Hitler Youth camp counselor. He drinks, is a terrible shot, and is accompanied by an effeminate guy named Freddie Finkel (played to great effect by Alfie Allen). The cast rounds out with Scarlett Johansson, who plays Jojo’s mother Rosie, Thomasin Mckenzie as Elsa (a girl of much importance to the plot), Archie Yates as Yorkie (Jojo’s lovable best friend, who is also a Hitler Youth), and Rebel Wilson in a small but still funny role as Fraulein Rahm.
Although Waititi’s scenes as Hitler with Jojo are striking, they don’t overwhelm the film. It’s clear that the director is more concerned with breaking down Jojo’s burgeoning Nazi identity. His scenes serve to poke holes and ridicule Nazi thought, while Johansson and McKenzie humanize Jojo and break down his façade, while still playing out their own stories.
It’s the human element that Waititi is after the most, here. He’s not humanizing Nazis in his comedy, but rather redressing them for the absolute buffoons their idealism makes of people. The Holocaust is mentioned, and there are the stereotypes about Jews that play heavily into the film (Waititi himself is Maori and Jewish), but the movie does not make light of Nazi war crimes. Rather, it works to uncorrupt an innocent who has been tainted by the ideology.
Some of that humanizing element comes at a cost to the movie’s pacing, though. It lags in the middle, slowly turning what starts off as a comedy becomes dramedy, before sliding into tragicomedy. Although the tone of the film changes the more the antagonistic forces close in, the characters retain their charm, while still adapting to the world. It is not an uneven slide, but that comes with the challenge of making a comedy about Nazi Germany.
What balances that, however, is the performance of the actors and filmmaking on hand. Scarlett Johansson, Jojo’s cheery mother, is having a ball here. The acting on hand for her seems to come from the stage with the sort of show she puts on for her son, pretending that everything will be all right. Davis and Yates make for a great pair of pals, and Waititi and Rockwell make for a great pair of idiots.
There’s no stylish overbearing with the camerawork here. There are some excellent opportunities taken for good framing, whether it’s Johansson swinging her arms in a doorway or her and Jojo sitting down near a bridge. It’s the quieter moments of Waititi’s filmmaking that help ease the viewer into what the film pans out to be.
I had a conversation with a coworker recently about a Netflix special I’ve been watching concerning a Cleveland auto worker who is tried for being a camp guard at the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps in Poland during WWII. I explained that the excuse that many guards come up with is that they were just following orders, and to my surprise, my coworker agreed, but admitted that did not excuse their crimes. What they were missing out on though, is the rampant hatred that infected their minds when Hitler rose to power. They followed orders to put people to death and did not care because they didn’t see these people as human. It’s that humanity that Waititi tries to get close to here, in all the characters, no matter how despicable they’d be in real life. He’s not looking to forgive, here. The good people don’t make it but the bad guys get what’s coming, and what comes after is up to the people who make it out. Do they continue thinking and behaving in the ways that made them terrible? Or do they rethink themselves with the lessons they learned from the people who tried to help them?