(London Film Festival, October 7th, 2019, Odeon, Tottenham Court Road,
Central Cross, 30 Tottenham Court Rd, London W1T 1BX, UK, 15:10 pm)
"Jojo Rabbit" is a 'World War II' satire that follows a lonely German boy Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) as whose world view is turned upside down when he discovers his single mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a young Jewish girl, in their attic. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), Jojo must confront his blind 'Nationalism'.
Based on Christine Leunens novel 'Caging Skies', first published in 2004, the story begins in fictional 'Falkenheim'. In this quaint town under 'Nazi' rule, the end of the war is rapidly approaching. However, in 10-year-old Jojo’s bedroom, anticipation is mounting. For today, he finally has the chance he’s been waiting all his 10 years for, to join The Hitler Youth'. To Jojo, so credulously gullible and susceptible to the pervasive propaganda that surrounds him, it feels like his first opportunity to do something big and important, to help protect his single mother he loves beyond anything, and maybe even to feel like he belongs. To sooth his insecurities, Jojo brings along an outsized imaginary friend; a clownish, hare-brained apparition of Hitler, who with all the emotions of a child dispenses advice Jojo might have sought from his absent father. With Adolf in his head, Jojo feels invincible. But in fact, Jojo’s troubles are just beginning. Humiliated and nearly decapitated in 'The Hitler Youth' camp, his frustration only grows deeper. Then, Jojo makes a discovery that slowly, yet radically, transforms how he sees the world. Chasing what he believes to be some kind of phantasm, he finds instead that his mother has been hiding a 'Jewish' girl in the wall at terrible risk to them all. The shock nearly undoes him, here's the danger he’s been warned about living in his own home, under his own nose, mere feet from where he regularly confides in his imaginary friend Hitler. But as Jojo endeavors to keep tabs on the mysterious Elsa, his fear and vigilance grow into something even Adolf cannot seem to fathom. For the more he gets to know Elsa as a person, the more she becomes someone Jojo can’t imagine allowing anyone, including his 'Nazi' idols, to harm. While "Jojo Rabbit" is very much a comic allegory about the costs of letting bigotry take hold, whether in your bedroom or a nation, Jojo also takes a very real journey as a child coming-of-age. For in finding the courage to open his mind, he discovers the power of love to change your path.
Jojo is a very, very conflicted boy, so that's a big challenge. When you first meet him, he truly believes all the propaganda he’s seen. All Jojo knows about 'Jews' is from propaganda and the teachings at school which says they've got horns and devil tails and they're monstrous creatures. But you also see that he’s just a sweet kid who doesn't really know what he's talking about! He’s looking for something in 'The Nazis' that's missing in his life. His father is gone, and his mum is busy with things she doesn’t talk about, so he has no one except his imaginary friend, and he imagines that the only one who can really help him is Hitler. Jojo is a mix of blind gusto and untamed emotions in stride. He has that sparkle in his eye and the extreme enthusiasm for life. He mixes anger, anxiety, discovery and other subtle emotions into the humor. He reminds people of the harrowing history of bigotry, and how deeply it can affect not only entire societies, but especially children. Jojo’s awakening seemed to mirror how the world reacted after 'WWII'; stunned by a collective human loss of innocence, then uniting to affirm that hateful ideas would never again be allowed to take hold like that. As bizarre and unexpected as it's to interact with Hitler, some of the most demanding scenes come as Jojo wrestles with how to react to Elsa, who he truly believes has devilish powers. Yet, even Jojo cannot keep up his suspicion of Elsa for very long. While at first, he merely keeps her secret for fear of his mother getting arrested, the more he gets to know Elsa, the more he can’t resist what starts to feel like an authentic, eye-opening friendship that's rocking his world. In many ways, Elsa has all the bravery and sense of dignity Jojo only dreams of having. In spite of everything he thinks he’s supposed to think, Jojo really starts to like her. It’s quite confusing for him; how can he have such affection for Elsa despite his strong beliefs? It makes him question everything, even Hitler.
Elsa is basically living in a cave, almost starving and all alone, so it's difficult to find such strong feelings and go on pro-'Nazi' rants at her. At first, you don't really know if she's a monster or a ghost. You don't know who she's or what her intentions are. You’re in Jojo’s point of view, so you start off with a fear of Elsa. But then, like Jojo, you see more and more of who she's and all that she's going through. As Elsa and Jojo start to see each other more clearly, outside of all the propaganda that surrounds them, they develop a relationship almost like a brother and sister. She's mysterious to entice Jojo to want to know more, but with a humanity that strips away Jojo’s illusions and confronts him with the discomfiting fact that everything he’s been led to believe about 'Jews' is all a terrible lie. Elsa’s situation is so vulnerable the whole way through, trapped in this small crawlspace, but the film wants to counter that by showing that Elsa is actually stronger and fiercer than anyone. She's a girl who isn’t a victim at all and definitely doesn’t see herself that way. The character of Elsa represents nothing less than the hope and resilience of humanity when confronted with unbridled hate and evil. She doesn't want pity, she just wants to be able to live her life without all this crap happening. Elsa transforms Jojo in spite of himself.
The film likes the dynamic where, contrary to what Jojo expects, Elsa holds most of the cards and calls the shots. But also, they're in a 'Catch-22' that binds them together because both face terrible stakes if their secret gets out. Also vital is creating all 'The Nazis' in the film to be ridiculous and mockable, full of all the same flaws and quirks as the rest of us, which makes their participation in the fascist realm that much more of a chilling warning of how easily malevolent ideologies can take root on a large scale. This is especially true of Jojo, who initially reveres what he sees as Hitler’s might, until he sees in Elsa and his mother a principled strength that's so much greater. It's important that Jojo be clearly seen as a 10-year-old-boy who really doesn’t know anything. He just basically loves the idea of dressing in a uniform and being accepted. That's how 'The Nazis' indoctrinated kids, really, by making them feel part of this really cool gang. It's about the idea of seeing the madness of war and hate, something grown-ups very much manifest, through the eyes of a child. Adults are supposed to be the people who guide children and raise them to be better versions of ourselves. Yet when children look at us in times of war, adults seem ridiculous and out of their minds.
You’ll go to Morocco, take up lovers and make them suffer, look a tiger in the eye and learn to trust without fear. That’s what it's to be a woman, or at least what it could be. You don’t get to see the full extent of their relationship, but Rosie Betzler is someone that’s saving her life and putting a lot on the line just to have Elsa in her house. Elsa feels admiration and a longing to establish a relationship, a longing to have a mother and someone to speak to. The film turns Rosie not only into a single mother, but also a defiant woman who decides that so long as ideals of empathy and tolerance are being pushed to the margins, she will work fearlessly to uphold them. Contrary to Jojo, she sees all too clearly the poisonous world Hitler is forging, so her natural response is to help, as she says, by doing what she can, which in her passionately practical way is a lot. But that also means hiding the truth of her life from Jojo to keep him safe, while hoping her little boy comes to his senses. She's really strong solo mom who's trying to save her son and others from this horrible situation, but at the same time trying to retain Jojo’s innocence. She's trying to balance her need to live boldly and be true to herself while doing all she can to keep Jojo safe through loss and peril. Being a mother is a big part of her identity but it's just one part. She also is full of fervor and ideas and the film wants her to have all those different shades so that she might feel really full of life. Rosie is unabashedly imaginative, poetic and romantic and at the same time, she's this very grounding force for Jojo. She's fighting for 'The Resistance' and is really a very modern woman. She's such a bright light in this very dark time. Even though Rosie is a dreamer and a bit of a comedian, she's also very pragmatic. Very much part of being a parent is that constant balancing between your practical, responsible, adult side and the side who can create a magical world for your kids. She's truly the strongest character in the film.
Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) is really recent in terms of human history and we’ve got to keep talking about it, because the dynamics that caused it aren’t going away. He’s a figment of Jojo's imagination so his knowledge of the world is limited to what a 10-year-old understands. He’s the little devil on Jojo’s shoulder, basically. He’s also a bit of a projection of Jojo’s heroes all combined, including his father. Jojo’s fantasy version of Hitler is hardly the historical figure. Instead, he’s a loony, larger-than-life mashup of Jojo’s own impulses, desires, things he’s read or overheard and his yearning for a father figure. Jojo’s version of Adolf can actually sometimes be quite nice, which might seem a bit weird because he's Hitler, but at other times he's properly scary. He’s very light in the beginning, like Jojo, but by the end of the film he's just this sad, sad despot. Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) is the cheekily imperious trainer of 'Hitler Youth Troops' who's at various times Jojo’s idol, nemesis and confidante. He has one eye, zero faith in the military command and a growing number of secrets. Captain Klenzendorf lives in a world of his own. He has all this flamboyant creativity that we want to give expression to at the end, when he explodes onto the scene.
Providing deadpan comic relief throughout "Jojo Rabbit" is Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson), the instructor who teaches the girls how to perform their womanly duties in war time but dreams of joining the frontlines herself. Fraulein Rahm follows in this tradition, ever-willing to believe every absurd 'Nazi' myth that makes the rounds. Despite her satiric portrait of a woman who questions absolutely nothing she hears, Fraulein Rahm is representative of many German women who took lead roles in the war. She serves in every way she can; teaching girls their womanly duties, giving Jojo physical therapy, then manning a machine gun. Perhaps the most hilariously dark and frightening character of all in Jojo Rabbit is Captain Herman Deertz (Stephen Merchant) of 'The Falkenheim Gestapo', who meticulously investigates reports of hidden 'Jews' and resistors. The character reminds people of just how outrageous cults of personality can become. There's something laughable about the worship of this little man with his little moustache who looks like an angry accountant and that’s one of the things that the film plays with. There’s a sense of how people can be swept up by, for lack of a better word, bullshit. It’s something still resonating right now. We still see people all over the world being up in these things, especially when there’s a uniform and an identity involved, so it seems well worth satirizing.
'The Hitler Youth' was first created in 1922 to indoctrinate kids and teens into 'Nazi Ideology' and train them to ultimately be tools of war. This gives us a sense of just how dark the reality of Jojo’s world is, no matter how much he just wants it to be a glorious adventure, as any 10-year-old would. What 'The Nazis' did to children was really awful. They wanted to have an army of fanatics to help them take over the world. Nazis' were parodied on screen as early as the 1940s when they're still very much a global threat, with the key being that the last laugh was always on them. Both during and after the war, Hitler was routinely mocked because it was a way of people dealing with the horror they're seeing. If you can reduce Hitler to something laughable, you win. The book is more of a drama, though it has comic moments. The film has more fantastical elements and obviously more humor, creating a kind of dance between drama and satire. The film creates something like a jazz riff on Leunens book, whipping up the structure of her story into an antic allegory of how fear mongering can take root in naïve mind, and how love can come out of left field to topple down the walls we put up against other people. If the book is a classical, panel painting, the film is more like Picasso’s 'Guernica'.
Like the story, the design of "Jojo Rabbit" presents the world through a 10-year-old’s confined but vivid lens, full of bright colors and bucolic beauty even amid the oppression and destruction of 'Nazi Germany'. At that age, you remember everything but with a kind of brightness to it all. Everything looks like a Spring morning. The film has all those 'Neorealist' qualities where there are sunny and charming moments but also very dramatic moments, and the mood can go from funny to tragic in a snap. That era between 1930 and 1945 was actually a revolutionary one for style in Europe, despite the war. In a lot of 'WWII'-era films, everyone dresses in brown and gray and it just feels kind of sad and dated. But if you look at the fashions of the time, though, there's really lots of bright color and high style. It's an era that in most people’s minds unspools in black-and-white. To see that world in color, the way Jojo, Rosie and Elsa would have experienced it, gives it a whole new dimension and aliveness. We've seen so many muted period films from 'WWII', whether in black & white or in more somber colors, that we're shocked to see such a vibrant spectrum of color. But that's the reality and once the film decides to reflect this, it's an idea that circulated through the set design and the costumes and helps to set the tone for the story. At Jojo’s age things are a little more rosy-tinted and the world seems bigger and more amazing. So, the film recreates this feeling, the feeling we all have in childhood, but within 1940s Germany.
For most of the film, we’ve been in Jojo’s imagination, with his playful view of war, but when the battle hits the town, we’re suddenly struck with the reality of what war really is. The frightening atmosphere and noise of it feels very real. In some ways it feels very visceral and real, but the film also creates something that becomes a kind of magical and surreal moment in the film. As the events in the film grow darker, so too do the colors. For the happier, more playful moments in the film, we've a diverse palette of oversaturated colors. Then, the film tapes those off as more drama comes into play. Most of the film takes place in 'The Autumn" so we've lush greens sprinkled with gorgeous reds, oranges and pinks into the street scenes. However, hidden deep within the lightness of the house is Elsa’s dark, cramped space behind the wall, which forges an opposite feeling, mirroring the nearly unbearable tension under which she's forced to live. Rosie’s look has to be so distinctive that the audience recognizes her, in a flash, in the scene that's a devastating emotional turning point of the story. The butterfly seemed to express who she's, and the film uses a very distinctive pair of shoes, which stand out for a lady in that era. It's more powerful when you just see the shoes and make the connection to the butterfly in this moment. The camera always tries to make sure the audience is aware of Rosie’s shoes. For example, you really notice them when she’s dancing by the river in that light moment.
The best comedy has always come out of the hardest human situations and 'Nazi Germany' is one of the hardest situations in history. "Jojo Rabbit" offers a sharply funny, yet profoundly stirring, child’s-eye view of a society gone mad with intolerance. The film makes a powerful statement against hate with this pitch-black satire of 'The Nazi Culture' that gripped 'The German Psyche' at the height of 'WWII'. It's a story almost too appalling to approach with sober solemnity, that of a boy who, like many at that time, has been brainwashed into absolutely gung-ho devotion to Hitler. He then mines from it a dark, mesmerizing comedy that ultimately unravels the toxic ideas of 'Anti-Semitism' and persecution of the other. Balancing on a comedic high-wire, the film mixes the fury of satire with an insistent sense of hope that fanaticism and hate can be overcome. The film follows very much in the footsteps of Mel Brooks, Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch and Stanley Kubrick to name a few. The script has a charged, satirical edge in the vein of say "Dr. Strangelove" and other black comedies that confront heavy subject matters by making them very funny. "Jojo Rabbit" is a fresh way to re-visit the most unsettling of topics through the paradoxically moral force of out-and-out parody. But much as the film owes to its bold forbearers, The film feels very much of our times, with it's deeply human characters whose blinded foibles might amuse but whose inner predicaments are deadly real and pointedly relevant right now.
The film opens a comfort zone but also any notion that stories about 'The Nazi Era' have been played out, especially when the lessons of those times are so urgent right now. With 'Nationalism', 'Anti-Semitism' and other forms of religious and racial intolerance on the rise, the stakes of grabbing people’s attention felt sky-high. The film brings the audience in with laughter, and once they’ve dropped their guard, then start delivering these little payloads of drama that have serious weight to them. Even if you don’t see them right away, you’ll feel them. It’s after the laugh that the strings start to be felt, drawing one’s consciousness to things that aren’t quite right, aren’t entirely funny, into deeper, more complex emotions, amongst these, the realization of the absurdity of the situation, and the tragedy and pain. In the end, as much as "Jojo Rabbit" showcases the tragically absurd realities of authoritarianism and nationalistic fervor, as well as the personal wages of prejudice and hate, the film equally reminds us of our human connection and the simple responsibility we all have to do what we can, including simply trying to be good to one another. This feels like exactly the right time to tell this story, because this is a case where you don’t want it to be too late to tell it.