When a movie opens with footage from Triumph of the Will to the Beatles singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” in German, you expect what follows to be a little radical. New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi’s new feature adaptation of Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies is actually less radical than it might appear at first blush, but that isn’t to say it’s not hip.
Jojo Rabbit, a frequently surreal dark comedy about Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten-year old boy growing up in Germany during World War II, is alternately funny and horrifying. Johannes, nicknamed Jojo, is a member of the Hitler Youth, and idolizes Hitler to the point that a version of Hitler not far removed from The Producers appears to him as part imaginary playmate/part hallucinatory advisor. Injured during grenade practice at Nazi sleepaway camp, Jojo is assigned to light duties helping the party while he’s recuperating. In addition to some facial scars and a limp, he’s also acquired the nickname “Jojo Rabbit” because he wouldn’t wring a rabbit’s neck during one of the educational seminars at the camp. Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johannson) is out one afternoon when Jojo gets home early, and that’s when he makes a startling discovery – his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in the attic.
Jojo and his new houseguest Elsa (a tough and luminous Thomasin McKenzie) form an uneasy rapprochement that’s really more Mexican standoff. If Jojo goes with his first instinct – as he’s been taught – and turns Elsa in, his mother is dead at the very least. If she lets Rosie know Jojo knows about her, she may be shown the door, and that’s as good as being shipped to the same concentration camp the rest of her family has already been consigned to. On top of that, Jojo begins to like Elsa – and not just as a sisterly friend – despite the fact that he’s been taught to consider Jews subhuman.
At no point does Waititi, who also wrote the movie’s quirky screenplay, try to pretend that Jojo isn’t virulently anti-Semitic. He’s absolutely in the thrall of his Nazi teachers, and parrots Hitler’s racist drivel with conviction. His mother clearly disapproves of the Nazi Party and the war, though can’t say so openly without risking dire consequences.
In addition to excellent performances from the young leads and Johannson, Waititi benefits from an excellent supporting cast, particularly Sam Rockwell as a German officer who’s been relegated to Hitler Youth training after losing the use of an eye in combat. Waititi himself plays Jojo’s imaginary Hitler, who keeps offering Jojo cigarettes, although Hitler himself reportedly did not smoke. Rebel Wilson, as a Nazi Den Mother from Hell is largely wasted.
Leunens’ novel was adamantly not a comedy. Waititi’s movie is, albeit a dark one, and there’s some very dark, even shattering, stuff in it. Jojo himself is alternately sweet and repellent. There’s every reason to suspect that Waititi is a Wes Anderson fan – Jojo Rabbit has a distinctly Andersonian vibe, though not Anderson’s increasingly stately sense of visual composition. And Anderson handles mixed tones more smoothly than Waititi. The juxtaposition of horror and humor is often awkward here, leaving the viewer off-balance, though that’s scarcely inappropriate given the subject matter.
The dialogue, and often the music, are deliberately anachronistic, and the device works surprisingly well. It should be noted that the German version of David Bowie’s “Heroes” (“Helden”) is actually better than the English original. The movie’s pyrotechnics are alarmingly convincing, and are both more exciting and more frightening than those in many recent action movies with far larger budgets.
Modern audiences are likely to think this is a more radical approach than it actually is. Black comedy and surrealism have been used before to illustrate the insanity and horror of war. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 set the bar high, as did Robert Altman’s movie adaptation of Richard Hooker’s novel M*A*S*H. Woody Allen’s character play Play It Again, Sam, later filmed by Herbert Ross, was advised by an imaginary specter of Humphrey Bogart. Bottom line, none of this is new.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant. At a time when inbred, mentally defective white supremacists and neo-Nazis disgrace their country by pubicly embracing Hitler’s evil political philosophies and denying the historical reality of The Holocaust, and the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue openly race-baits his followers at political rallies that look alarmingly like Nuremberg, Jojo Rabbit is tragically topical. The Nazis were all too real, and there was nothing funny about them. There is a point to be made by satirizing them and it might help get the attention of those who don’t think a rising tide of anti-Semitic hate crimes is a pressing problem.
Jojo Rabbit certainly stands out in the current cinematic landscape, and makes its point in a disarmingly comical way, the horrors that frame its edges notwithstanding. It doesn’t attempt to sugar-coat the fact that war always ends the same way – in ashes, rubble and corpses. But it also attempts to prove that the human heart is capable of changing, forgiving and enduring, and that is an attempt worth making.