To make a World War II comedy in today’s cultural climate is a tall and dangerous endeavor. But director Taiki Waititi (What We Do In The Shadows, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Thor Ragnorak) takes the brave leap with his newest film, JoJo Rabbit.
Based on the book Caging Skies, JoJo Rabbit tells the story of 10-year-old Nazi fanatic Johannes “JoJo” Betzler, whose alliance is bolstered by his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi). But when JoJo befriends Elsa Korr, the Jewish girl his mother is hiding under his roof, his naive ideology begins to crumble.
Watiti fills JoJo Rabbit to the brim with analogies, cultural commentary, relational dynamics, and, errr…rabbit trails for audiences to explore and discuss. JoJo’s adoration for Hitler and country is driven predominantly by propaganda and Germany’s cultural climate. Like a sports star, Hitler memorabilia hangs all over JoJo’s wall. JoJo and his friends go to the equivalent of a summer camp to learn how to be a Nazi. He practices his “Heils!” with his imaginary friend, the Reich himself. And somehow, Watiti parodies all of it through slapstick humor, foolish dialogue, and comical performances by the likes of Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and Stephen Merchant.
Due to the subject matter, Watiti’s jokes often take offense. And while the jokes cause a squirm, it was strangely refreshing to watch a provocative comedy delivered by the likes of children. In today’s film and TV show boom, often what’s provocative is rarely laughable. Certain stories can’t address riven humanity without going dark and depressing, but what JoJo Rabbit demonstrates is that those same things may also be challenged through laughter and absurdity.
What is often most profound hides behind the foolishness of the film; the comedy a veneer to the rich content underneath the laugh track. Many of the moving scenes come in JoJo and Elsa’s interactions. What starts as an encounter filled with vitriol towards one another soften as the two spend more time together. JoJo’s hatred slowly disintegrates with increased proximity to Elsa. In a particularly moving scene, JoJo attempts to be hurtful by drawing a crude cartoon and showing her. Instead of getting the reaction he wanted, she stuns him by calmly correcting him that all the ideas he has of Jews are only in his head. Each moment after this is, JoJo slowly abandons his toxic ideas of Jews as one simultaneously draws close to him. He realizes that his Nazi passions are hollow and hurtful; as Elsa says “you’re not a Nazi Jojo. You’re just a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”
Watiti repeatedly uses feet and their movement as a thematic element. JoJo, with all of his Nazi passion, still needs his mother Rosie’s (Scarlett Johansson) help to tie his shoes before stepping outside. Rosie also dances in many scenes, often inviting Jojo to join in; an invitation not possible without her first tying his shoes. Her dancing less a sign of naïveté in the shadow of Nazi Germany but of a rebellious oppositional to the powers that be. Even in deep sadness, feet play a pivotal role reminding viewers that standing for something or someone comes at a cost.
Out of JoJo Rabbit’s mixed reviews, it seems like the dividing line is the movie’s simplicity. With its anti-hate tag, some wish that it would’ve gone further in calling out the propaganda-driven and hate-filled rhetoric that spills forth from a certain individual currently in power. But I for one appreciate that Waititi didn’t grab for that low hanging fruit. But instead, hoisted children up to pluck the perplexing fruit of compassion.
Jesus often talks about his followers becoming more like children. I’ve become more convinced that his invocation is less a call towards innocence as it is to remember that neediness and honesty are the first-fruits of reliance. I suppose you can always learn something by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, especially if it’s someone you’ve alienated as the other. But Jojo Rabbit makes me wonder if the path to justice is more counter-intuitive. That maybe what’s most transformative is if someone first stoops to tie our shoes despite our reluctance, and against all odds, invites us to dance in bold opposition to the war-torn streets we find ourselves in.
Media Credit: Youtube, NPR, IMdb, Rolling Stone, IndieWire