When I left the theater after seeing Jojo Rabbit, I knew I liked this movie and would rate it favorably. But I wasn’t yet certain quite how highly I would rate it, nor was I fully decided what I thought about certain aspects of it. I needed some time to properly digest it.
The movie is set in 1945 in a town in Germany, with the total defeat of the Nazis now inevitable and imminent. The populace has been picked through many times in order to find people to fight in what’s left of the war, and by this stage there’s virtually no one left for this final stage of defense of the homeland except children, the elderly, and soldiers who had earlier been discharged from the service due to suffering severe injuries (e.g., loss of a limb).
Among those receiving military training and propaganda so that they can be thrown into the fighting is a unit of the Hitler Youth in this town. The unit includes 10 year old Jojo.
Jojo experiences anxiety about what the authority figures running the Hitler Youth program and his peers will think of him, but he’s not particularly bothered by the prospect of fighting in the war, no doubt because the former is immediate and the latter feels remote to him. Nor does he sweat the possibility of Germany losing the war and being punished by an occupying power, because he knows based on all he has been told his whole life that such a thing is simply not possible.
Indeed, he is a gung ho Nazi through and through. At 10 there is plenty he doesn’t understand, but he certainly knows which team he’s on.
Jews are to him mysterious, non-human boogieman figures, self-evidently hostile and duplicitous, but remote from his personal experience.
Jojo is mostly normal for his age in terms of his intellectual and emotional development, but with a few traits more often associated with a younger child. For one, he still hasn’t quite mastered tying his own shoelaces. For another, he still has an imaginary friend, one who is invisible to all but him (and the movie audience).
That imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. “Hitler” accompanies young Jojo through his day-to-day life.
What Jojo does not know is that his mother (played by Goddess Scarlett Johansson) is an active member of the resistance against the Nazi regime, as is his absent father, who he and others in the town have been told, in vague and non-specific terms, is off fighting in the German army somewhere.
What he also doesn’t know is that his mother is concealing a teenage Jewish girl named Elsa in their attic. He finds out, though, early in the film, when he stumbles into her and runs away screaming in terror.
He and Elsa, though, soon come to an understanding. He won’t let on to anyone that he knows of her existence, and she won’t use her evil Jew powers to bring suffering down upon him and his family.
Over time he can’t help but come to understand that she’s a person after all, the kind of person he could even be friends with, and the kind of person he could even have certain other feelings for (feelings that have just begun to stir in his 10 year old mind and body).
Much of the worst of the suffering, the cruelty, the death, the overall monstrousness of war and Nazism, occurs off-camera in Jojo Rabbit. People speak of it, there are glimpses of it, and you infer it from what you see (and you supply it yourself from the background knowledge you bring to the movie), but it’s mostly not in your face.
Yet somehow the emotional impact is as great as or greater than that of the overwhelming majority of films that present the dark side of humanity more explicitly. There are several incidents, several moments, in this movie that are painful to experience.
But at the same time, there is great beauty, love, and hope in this movie. Goddess Scarlett Johansson’s character is as inspirational as they come, combining the heroism of risking her life to do what’s right in opposing the Nazis, with raising a child as a single mother and doing a damn good job of it under the most trying circumstances.
She’s simply an awesome mom. One of the difficulties of parenting can be having the patience and understanding to deal with a child going through an unpleasant phase. Imagine if that phase were Nazism. But she takes it in stride, and continues to love Jojo, to support him, to model good values for him, and to encourage him in positive directions, trusting that in time she’ll get her little boy back.
As powerful as the bad stuff in this movie is, I’d say the good is at least as powerful. I got caught up in it to the point of being choked up more than once.
Judged according to how deeply movies have reached me emotionally, this one ranks in the top 10%.
What I haven’t mentioned yet, though, is that Jojo Rabbit is a comedy of sorts. And that’s the source of most of my uncertainty about how to assess it.
Indeed, it’s not only a comedy, but a madcap slapstick sort of comedy that makes the humor of Hogan’s Heroes seem subtle. The Nazis are consistently depicted as morons, and inept at everything they do.
So the question is, do the comic elements distract from and detract from the serious elements, or does the very contrast of laughing at the gags and then suddenly being whipsawed into some horrible or beautiful moment render those serious elements all the more powerful?
I don’t know. I found myself going back and forth on that question during the movie, as well as while thinking about it after it was over. I think if this story were told fully seriously it could be a very hard-hitting, high quality movie, but what I’m undecided about is whether that movie would be better or worse than this movie, because, remember, this quirky movie with its comic take on Nazis ranks in the top 10% most emotionally powerful movies I’ve seen.
The contrast is certainly startling. For example, there’s a scene where the Gestapo (led by, of all people, Stephen Merchant, whom I can’t believe I didn’t recognize at first—I mean, it’s not like the pool of British comic actors who are blonde, wear glasses, and are the height of an NBA forward is all that large) raids a home looking for incriminating evidence. And they couldn’t be more bumbling. The average whelk could outsmart these idiots.
Except that we subsequently find out that they did indeed capture and murder someone they were after when they conducted that raid. It’s like you’ve been encouraged to laugh at Colonel Klink and his minions all along, and then all of a sudden you see the bullet-ridden body of one of Hogan’s men who was caught trying to escape.
I suspect plenty of people will disapprove specifically of what is done with the Hitler character in this film. Yes, he’s a complete buffoon, but he’s not a bad guy. In his goofy way, he’s a supportive and caring friend. He’s Patrick Star to Jojo’s Spongebob. Is it OK to make Hitler a positive character in that sense?
I’m inclined to answer yes to that, though I respect that it will trouble some viewers. I think you have to remember that the Hitler in this movie is not supposed to be Hitler, but a 10 year old fantasy-prone boy steeped in Nazi propaganda’s version of what it would be like to have Hitler as a friend. He’s not able to attribute more intelligence to his imaginary friend than he himself has at that age, but he can give him various other positive qualities an elementary school boy would appreciate having in a friend.
So the film’s not saying that Hitler was a good guy (albeit a dunce), but that a 10 year old of that time and place might well imagine him to be a good guy.
Yet even if the Hitler characterization is understandable in that way, it’s not just imaginary Hitler who is depicted as something other than evil, but also the other Nazi characters that we get to know at all well. Most notably, the adult leader of Jojo’s Hitler Youth group (“Captain K”), who starts as a total goofball like the rest of them, turns out in the end to be a kind-hearted soul capable of sacrificing himself for the benefit of others.
Captain K’s unexpected heroism is a feel-good moment, but might there be an excess of feel-good material generated by positive depictions of Nazis in this movie?
In the end, all I can say is despite my uncertainty about these things, I found much of the comedy of Jojo Rabbit effective while also being emotionally moved by the serious elements—both the positive and the negative ones—of the film. So I lean toward endorsing this peculiar juxtaposition of slapstick humor with the most deadly serious of subject matters.
It’s also worth mentioning that in an era when we are strongly encouraged to have short attention spans and be unable to stick with anything deeper than an internet meme, one measure of the quality of a film is its ability to overcome that by holding one’s attention for its hour or two. I not uncommonly find myself fading and having to make an effort to stick with even a movie I like. It’s significant praise coming from me if I can say I was engrossed in a film from start to finish and would have been happy if it were a half hour or an hour longer so that I could spend more time with these characters and this story.
And I can definitely say that about this movie. Whether at a given moment I was laughing, feeling the shock and pain of encountering extreme evil, or feeling choked up and inspired by a manifestation of love and hope, Jojo Rabbit had my attention throughout.
I have some misgivings, but to me this is a very good movie.