Each year for the past few years, I have attempted to watch as many of that year’s Oscar nominees as possible before the awards are presented. It’s just a little personal challenge for fun, and I’ve had varying degrees of success in both seeing the films, and making predictions (ok that’s stretching the truth- my predictions are always failures). This year the nomination announcements caught Me by surprise somehow. I’d managed to completely miss the Golden Globes (whose nominations I usually use to get a jump start), and for the first time ever, I have not seen a single one of the nominees already on my own. Doh! Lots of work to do! Last year I wrote up reviews of all the nominees I managed to see, and published both my predictions, and my reactions. I hope to do the same this year, but I’ll try to write up my reviews individually as I see the films, and then will do a big prediction post at the end. Today we focus on…
(6 nominations, including best picture, supporting actress – Scarlett Johansson, adapted screenplay, costume design, production design, and film editing)
(photo credit: Peter Marovich for New York Times)
I don’t think I can talk about my reaction to Jojo Rabbit without discussing the context in which I saw it. Just two days prior to my viewing, the annual March for Life descended onto Washington, DC, where I work. What has struck me every year as I watch the protesters arrive is the alarming percentage of children who are involved. In previous years I was disturbed by the parents bringing along their young kids, but in the past couple years what has really struck me is the giant groups of teenagers. These kids are HAVING A BLAST!!! The ones I encounter tend to be private/religious school groups. They are boisterous and excited about their big trip and just having so much fun being kids, which is all great, but they are also being used to push an ideology thrust upon them by their community leaders. If given the opportunity to consider the abortion issue on their own, free of outside influence and pressure, I have no doubt that some might choose to be pro-life advocates. But some may not. Instead, a school or church has decided that this is an issue that must be fought for, and the best (or arguably the most desperate) way to do so is to weaponize the impressionability and the longevity of the young. March for Life day is the absolute worst day to be hanging around DC, because these kids also tend to be just the most obnoxious city visitors (recall last year’s controversial incident where the Kentucky MAGA kid was pictured facing off with the Native American elder?). It’s not just because they are just teenagers (who, I think we can all agree, are always generally obnoxious), it is because they are obnoxious teenagers who have been indoctrinated to believe that they are right, and superior, and that they are on a fucking mission to fight the heathens. They have been brainwashed beyond reason, this year even to the point that they lost their shit with excitement over President Trump (probably the least-Christian person on the planet) speaking at their event.
This is the scenario I had in my head as I watched Jojo Rabbit. In the film, a ten year old boy grows up in a time of extreme nationalism and idolizes his nation’s charismatic leader. He joins a youth group, where he gets to go on a field trip to do fun stuff like play capture the flag and throw explosives. He’s told that he is the future of his nation, he’s part of a group, and that he’s important and right. Plus he gets his own knife! Like the kids at last week’s march, he is an innocent pawn in a battle far too complex and gobal for his young innocent mind to fully explore.
At the film’s beginning, we are all, just like the March for Life kiddos, having an absolute hoot of a time! We’re watching a fun comedy, and it’s legitimately hilarious. Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson in particular shine in their roles as apathetic bumbling Nazi youth leaders. We have perfectly-timed slapstick gags (a thrown knife bouncing back to stab a kid in the leg). We have an imaginary friend (in this case the fuhrer himself, Mr. Adolf Hitler) who talks in silly voices and cheers us up. We have hilarious lessons about Jews who have evil powers.
It’s all extremely distasteful and inappropriate. And hilarious. But it doesn’t last, nor should it. We are seeing the world through a child’s innocent eyes. Hitler came to power when our adorable little protagonist Jojo (performed absolutely perfectly by young newcomer Roman Griffin Davis) was still a toddler. He has known no world but this, and has grown up completely indoctrinated. But he’s still a fun-loving kid. So the start of the movie is fun. Jojo has no way of knowing how fucked up Hitler and the Nazis are, or about how demented and wrong their teachings are. He doesn’t understand antisemitism. He doesn’t understand authoritarianism. He doesn’t understand war, or concentration camps, or any of the other factors that make it inappropriate to have fun with Nazis. But he knows that camp is fun and exciting! Wee!!!
But as the film evolves, so does little Jojo. He starts to realize that the world is a bit more fucked up and serious than he’d thought, and so the movie gets a bit more fucked up and serious as well. There is still humor, but it slowly dries up, arriving to us in sprinkles of repressed chuckles instead of the guffaws we were spewing at the beginning. Once we were deep and settled into the film, I caught myself thinking, “Why isn’t this funny anymore?” and I decided it was likely on purpose. Jojo was dealing with some very real, very serious issues. He was learning about himself and the world around him. He was busy reconciling revelations about the people around him with the doctrine he had been internalizing for all these years. Along the way, even his goofball invisible friend Adolf Hitler started to turn on him. We’re growing and being sad and confused right there with our protagonist. It was a very effective storytelling tool. However…
I didn’t like this aspect of the film. I understand telling the story of WWII from a child’s innocent perspective. But we’ve seen that story told many, many times. What makes this particular film so unique is not the perspective Jojo’s innocence, but the perspective of writer and director’s Taika Waititi amazing wit and humor to effectively and scathingly warn against the dangers of authoritarianism. Laughing at Nazis is a tough job, but the most talented storytellers can pull it off. Take, for example, Mitchell and Webb’s classic inaugural sketch “Are we the Baddies?”
We had high hopes that if anyone could accomplish this is a full feature film, Waititi could do it. And for the most part, he was successful. But I would have been far more impressed with a slightly heavier use of humor throughout.
What else did this film have in its favor? I appreciated the depiction of the final stand of Berlin.* I read an entire book about this subject a couple years back. With all healthy aryan men of fighting age off getting decimated on the battlefield, the reich got desperate. Who was left to defend the city? Literal German shepherds (you’ll see). Old ladies with bazookas. And, yes, children. They’d been told at their nazi youth camp that they were now soldiers, and that was cute and all, but hey look, here they are finally and actually being Hitler’s last defense (after he himself had chickened out and killed himself). It’s like giving a kid a set of plastic pilot wings and naming him your co-captain, then actually having him take over piloting the plane while you parachute to safety. In the movie, this is the final straw for little Jojo Rabbit, who finally realizes that Hitler wasn’t a hero showing Germany’s kids the way, but a coward using them to his personal advantage.
Do I recommend seeing this movie? Yes, absolutely. But be aware that a WWII movie is still a WWII movie, even with Waititi at the helm. So prepare to be bummed out. And then be prepared to be even more bummed out when you consider that, in Waititi’s own words, “It’s pretty sad in 2019 that we even need a film like this that explains to people that it was bad to be a Nazi.”
*A reader has pointed out that he thought the film was actually set in Austria. I did some Googling. The novel Caging Skies, on which this film was based, is indeed set in Vienna, Austria. But after some light internet research, is seems the film’s location is actually just “a town in Nazi Germany.” The film was shot in Czechia (specifically Prague, Uztek, Chcebuz, and Zatec). According to IMDB, Waititi selected these locations because he “discovered in his research that WWII Germany was very vibrant and fashionable, and was interested in shying away from traditional war films showing it as dreary and dark, instead presenting the town as a seemingly celebratory place and dressing characters as stylishly as possible.” IMDB also points out that in the end (spoiler alert!) the town is liberated by both American and Soviet soldiers simultaneously, which is something that never actually happened in any real locations. I was convinced we were set in Berlin because the final battle so closely and accurately matched the desperate last stand about which I had read. So I stand corrected, but I am also leaving this paragraph in because the more important point here isn’t the exact geographic location, but rather the nature of the final days of the war.