JOJO RABBIT is An Essential Film for Our Times

Acts of violence, violation, and corruption—this is what the world looks like. “When will it end?” you wonder. It probably never will. “Has the world always been like this?” Sadly, the answer is yes. But what makes Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit a must-see is because it’s so pointedly relevant to what’s going on in the world at this moment. Drawing on his own experiences with prejudice, writer-director Waititi makes a powerful and humorous satire of Nazi culture, a statement against hate, and a look at the absurdity of violence. 

Hate wasn’t more so a part of one’s psyche than with the Germans during WWII. Jojo Rabbit examines this society gone mad through the eyes of a child. We are first introduced to Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) as he looks at himself in the mirror wearing his new Hitler Youth uniform. With his blonde hair and blue eyes, he describes himself as “a shiny example of shiny perfection.”

Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019) – source: Fox Searchlight

Based on Christine Leunens’ novel, Caging Skies, the film takes place in a little town at the tail end of the war. The town is under Nazi rule and Jojo aspires to be one. At 10-years-old, we had posters of our favorite bands and musicians on our walls, but Jojo has Nazi propaganda, images of Hitler, and Swastikas. Like many children in Germany during WWII, he’s easily influenced and gullible, and he has been fed lies and false images of Jews and the opposing Allies. As a Hitler Youth, he feels he can finally do something important to help the war effort, and especially, to help protect his single mom, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson).

Jojo soon learns, though, that killing isn’t in his nature when he refuses to kill a rabbit, hence earning him his nickname. Throughout the film, he seeks advice from his imaginary friend who soothes his insecurities. This imaginary friend just happens to be a clownish caricature of the Führer himself (played by Waititi). Hitler is a replacement father figure of sorts for Jojo, constantly drilling toxic ideas of anti-Semitism in his head. This hateful belief system soon unravels when Jojo discovers that his mother has been hiding a girl in their house, a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). As Jojo learns more about this mysterious new guest, we see a transformation in him as Elsa strips away his hateful beliefs. The story then shifts into a heartwarming tale of love, acceptance, and hope. 

Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019) – source: Fox Searchlight

Through the young Jojo Betzler, Waititi re-visits this dark time in history with a fresh lens and sharply funny script. This parody of WWII perfectly balances humor and sincerity as it touches on both the heartbreaking events of the war, while also providing catharsis to laugh at the idiocy of the regime. Waititi knows where the comedy starts and where it ends. Getting to laugh at the absurdity of violence, especially under the misguided principles of corrupt rulers, is refreshing. By speaking of the idiotic falsities spread through Nazi propaganda, it makes this the perfect film for these times as we ourselves are fed lies about the other every day. Prejudice and racism caused by a Western, Christian belief system is ever-present. “It’s illegal for Nazis and Jews to hang out like we do,” Jojo says to Elsa. Through the growth of a friendship that’s seen as criminal, Jojo Rabbit delivers a message of trust, understanding and open-mindedness, three things we could use more of. 

Taika Waititi creates a film with some of the best direction of the year, as well as, maybe, the best-adapted screenplay. While he certainly excels behind the camera, he’s the one weak link on screen. His portrayal of Hitler, while a farce, threatens the film’s tone. It’s impossible to create a portrayal of Hitler that isn’t devilish and offensive, but the hatred spewed from him borders on the offence too much that it threatens the humour. While Jojo and the other young characters also spew hate of the same kind, it’s not as offensive because it stems from immaturity and their impressionable nature.

Hitler’s purpose as Jojo’s imaginary friend does make sense, however. He’s there to represent Jojo’s internal struggle between who he is and how he is being taught to be. But this still could have worked if Hitler had simply been a background character; a lurking presence in the back of your mind as he was for many people. Waititi’s character is juxtaposed by the standout of the film: Scarlett Johansson’s Rosie Betzler. As Jojo’s mother, she’s trying to rid her son of a mind clouded by hate because she hates both violence and war. While the film follows Jojo, his mother Rosie feels like the heart of the film. She’s the most important person in Jojo’s life. She provides the light that is missing when Jojo goes outside to face a darker reality. She teases, she jokes, she dances. Rosie is Johansson’s best role in years (apart from Marriage Story perhaps). She’s sweet, funny, and emotionally stirring as a mother trying her best to keep an environment of love and hope unbroken.

Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019) – source: Fox Searchlight

A leading role in a bold production such as this wouldn’t be an easy task for just any newcomer, but Davis surprises. He’s absolutely adorable and perfectly captures the profound transformation Jojo goes through in the film, with the right mix of emotions for a young boy coming of age. McKenzie is feisty as the Jewish girl, Elsa, that Jojo’s mother saves from the Reich. McKenzie gave a breakthrough performance in last year’s Leave No Trace, and she once again excels in a role full of mystery, humanity, and strength. Elsa is resilient, but also has a vulnerability to her and the character provides that contrasting view of the war that leads to Jojo Rabbit’s sincere tone.

Rounding out the cast is Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf, the head of the Hitler Youth training camp, and Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm, a Hitler Youth instructor. Both have their share of comic relief, with Wilson getting the best one-liners, but Rockwell comes away with a bigger role in the film and also in Jojo’s life as a parental figure. And it wouldn’t be right to neglect to mention Archie Yates as Jojo’s best friend Yorki. He’s seriously the cutest kid on the planet, and his scenes with Jojo are some of the best in the entire film, getting the most “awwws” from the audience. 

“Violence, what is it good for?” This is the question Jojo Rabbit essentially asks. It’s the perfect film for today as it demonstrates how foolish violence is and how laughable misguided and idiotic beliefs can be. We’re still living in a society gone mad, but there’s hope that hate can be overcome. 

Jojo Rabbit is now in theaters worldwide

Published by Sara Clements

Freelance Film/TV critic and editor of Next Best Picture

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