starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson
screenplay by Taika Waititi, based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens
directed by Taika Waititi
by Walter Chaw Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit is an instantly divisive film sure to inflame not for being divisive in and of itself, but possibly because it's not divisive enough. It's a feel-good, warmhearted movie about, however tangentially, the Holocaust, earning it immediate unkind comparisons in some quarters to Life is Beautiful; and it's a satire of the simple-minded venality of Nazism and white supremacy, thus earning it kinder comparisons to The Great Dictator. In truth, it's both: it's unforgivably light, given its subject, and it's effectively unfortunately broad in its condemnation of Nazis, though considering Nazis are once again a thing and the "good guys" are advocating for giving them a spot at the ideological table, I mean...can anything be dumbed-down and obvious enough? By the same token, the issue I have with Jojo Rabbit is its essential hopefulness: the belief that people who adopt certain toxic ideas and ideologies can ever change. I think it's possible but exceedingly rare. Jojo Rabbit believes the opposite: that horrible ideas can flare, even flourish, for a time, but that the essential decency of humanity will save us. Waititi is Rousseau. I am Hobbes. Jojo Rabbit only offends me in its suggestion that there are good Nazis worth saving. This is admittedly more my shortcoming than the film's.
Jojo Rabbit is a lot like Coming of Age in Samoa in that it is based on something real and observed that has been filtered, as all things are, through a specific point-of-view holding an identifiable opinion. It's similar, too, in that its aim--to defeat pernicious supremacist beliefs--appears to be shared. It's a belief or a prayer, Waititi's and many others, that this extraordinary division we've found ourselves trolled into by the worst, stupidest human beings the planet, which has produced suddenly-winning elections everywhere, has an endpoint. It's a prayer that the light at the end of the tunnel isn't another train. Waititi is historically good at this marriage of the brutal and the sublime. His Hunt for the Wilderpeople is full of sometimes shocking truths and still somehow all of optimism and light. What We Do in the Shadows? Arterial sprays were never so awkwardly, affectionately well-intended. All of his work, even his Thor movie, demonstrates this Rousseauian presumption of unfailing good intention. Although I question whether Jojo Rabbit is a good film, it's certainly good politics. Anyway, that's the first discursive anecdote. There'll probably be another one. It's just how my brain works.
The last three years have been bad for a lot of us. While some have found passionate intensity, others have found their depression deepening and their anxiety worse. Personally, I don't have a lot of hope left that good will ever prevail again when life outside of a proscribed state is "solitary, poor, nasty brutish, and short." People are not essentially good. Left to their own devices, people are motivated by their ignorance-fuelled fear; they buy red hats (and make hoods with eyeholes cut in them for the "good" company) and attend rallies where their hate is sanctified as dogma. There does not appear to be any enforceable power in the rule of law, and Christian cultists are poised, as they seem to have been at every Dark Age in our history, to impose their terror of female sexuality and socio-cultural diversity on the weakest members of society. When you look over at my list of favourite movies--The Conversation, Seconds, Black Narcissus, Evil Dead II, Shadow of a Doubt, and so on--there are few that feature conventionally "happy" endings in which the bad are redeemed and judged "good." I'm essentially suspicious of films that suggest there's hope. I either don't believe it, or I don't want to believe it because my heart can't keep breaking. Easier to leave Hope in Pandora's Box. That's what's fucked up about Pandora's Box, after all. The best tellings of that myth suggest that Hope was the only thing ever in it. The Eden story is like that, too. Expulsion from Paradise, you know, is knowing the difference between what is good and what is evil.
Jojo Rabbit is about tiny preteen Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a proud member of the Hitler Youth who's off to a li'l Nazi summer camp run by disgraced Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) as the story begins. The first quarter of the film involves broad camp slapstick and the revelation that Jojo's imaginary friend is an amiable, enthusiastic Hitler (Waititi himself) who is fond of giving Jojo pep talks and reinforcing his beliefs that Jews are cannibalistic rat people with horns. It puts no fine points on anything, this Jojo Rabbit. After the older Nazis bully Jojo and give him an unfortunate nickname, Jojo almost blows himself up with a grenade and is sent home, where his mom Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) can take care of him. Rosie is spunky and forthright although the war has widowed her and is on the verge of poisoning her sweet boy with a genuinely repugnant, and constantly defeated, worldview. She also has a secret: a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) is Anne Frank'd away in the walls of their home. Jojo discovers Elsa but needs to protect his mother's sedition and so tolerates Elsa. In the process, he, yes, gets to know her as a human being. The problem, of course, is that Jojo Rabbit doesn't go into the "economic anxiety" the Nazis stoked into genocide. The picture is a critique of fascism, especially the mobbish American sort of fascism here in the 21st century, and yet it uses the American flag as a symbol of emancipation from the same. I understand what Waititi is getting at--he's pitching his lesson plan at the dumbest people in the room--but the problem with doing that is it tends to erase the actual lessons of history. We don't learn. We are essentially brutal. And antisemitism didn't die in that bunker with that little shit.
There are extremely good things about Jojo Rabbit, like the use of a German version of a Beatles standard to undercut images taken from Reifenstahl's Reich footage--a montage that demonstrates the power of not just a state-run media manipulation offensive that is not at all unlike our own Fox News contamination, but also how easily that same contamination can be neutralized and used as a palliative cure, should less diseased minds ever take control of the wheel again. It's all of that without commentary, and it's fantastic. The KKK in the United States lost much of its power when, in 1946, a very popular Superman radio show made great sport of how inbred and ridiculous its rites and rituals were. Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman performed a similar service. As we've seen, media can be an agency of extraordinary evil, but used correctly it can also be a restorative salve. Jojo Rabbit is Waititi's attempt to use media correctly. It can be said that all of his films are like this. So I find myself in this uncomfortable position of saying that even though I find Jojo Rabbit to be a largely unremarkable movie that trafficks in sentimentality and a Pollyannaish worldview I find cloying and repugnant and in this instance even dangerous, it's also the kind of thing that can potentially make a difference in a world that is, once again, entertaining the notion that there ever is such a thing as a good Nazi. I hope Waititi is right. I wonder if Waititi is right and I'm wrong: is it possible, once Fox is banned and this Administration is disgraced and imprisoned, that among the monsters who have revealed themselves in human form, there were a few humans in monster form? Maybe we do get a few of them back. Even as I wonder if we'll want them back, I would never be more grateful to be wrong.