Movie review: Jojo Rabbit

January 16, 2020

CURRENTLY showing is “Jojo Rabbit”, a film that got several Oscar nominations, including best picture. See it right away before it vanishes. It is directed by New Zealand filmmaker-actor Taika Waititi, who hit it big in Hollywood when he helmed “Thor: Ragnarok”.  He also wrote the screenplay of “Jojo Rabbit”, based on the 2004 book “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunen, a New Zealand-Belgian writer.

The movie is set in Nazi Germany in the last months of World War II when Hitler was actually already losing in the eastern and western fronts. It’s told from the perspective of Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old boy who’s an eager member of the Nazi Hitler Youth. He has long been waiting for the day when he will be trained as a Hitler Youth under the command of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). But when he was subjected to an initiation test where he’s ordered to kill a rabbit using his own hands, the ardent little Nazi boy proved to be actually kind and caring, and so he failed to do his assigned task.

Humiliated, he runs away and earns the cruel nickname of Jojo Rabbit. Adolf Hitler appears to him as an imaginary friend (played by Waititi himself) and urges him to try to redeem his damaged reputation. He then tries to prove himself by snatching a hand grenade from Captain Klenzendorf but only ends up being injured, giving him ugly scars on his face.

He is relegated to distributing Nazi propaganda materials while stories of the Nazis imminent defeat continue to spread and the bodies of resistance fighters are left hanging in their town plaza. Alone at home, Jojo hears some noises in the bedroom of his late sister upstairs and is shocked to discover that his mom, Rosie (Scarlett Johannson), is hiding a Jewish girl in a secret room behind the walls, Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie, a New Zealand actress who was a hit in the drama film “Leave No Trace”). As a Nazi, he’s supposed to hate Jews even if he doesn’t really fully understand why.

The movie is a bittersweet tale of boyhood and coming-of-age, of friendship developing between supposed foes, a Nazi and a Jew, in a time of war. It’s also a love story that shows that a son’s love for his mother is greater than his love for his Fuehrer. Child actor Roman Griffin Davis (he got a Golden Globe best actor nomination) is totally sympathetic and believable as the boy hero who faces some nasty and painful trials at a very young age.

He’s well supported by Scarlett J as his sweet mom, who rears him to treat life as a dangerous adventure and she turns out to be a secret member of the resistance. Her endearing performance earned her a best supporting actress  Oscar nomination (she actually got a double nomination as she’s also a best actress candidate for “Marriage Story”.) Mother and son have a very final touching scene which is shot with complete restraint (you will see only Scarlett’s feet), but is still so completely heartbreaking.

Thomasin Mackenzie as Elsa manages to fully flesh out her character as the Jewish girl who’s been in hiding ever since her parents were taken to a concentration camp. Waititi himself gives a playful but biting caricature of Hitler, always offering a cigarette to the 10-year-old Jojo. The period production design is outstanding, specially the scenes taken when the war is ending and the allies are invading the German town where Jojo lives.

The movie has both tense and humorous moments. The scene where a Gestapo officer pops up to visit Jojo’s home and Elsa pretends to be his dead sister is quite taut, but punctuated with humor by the ludicrously prolonged exchanges of ‘Heil Hitler’. There’s also a scene where Sam Rockwell asks for German Shepherds, but his assistant, instead of giving him dogs, presents to him actual shepherds who are of German nationality.

The film’s opening song in the credit titles is The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, in German. The last song fulfills Elsa’s dream to dance, to the tune of David Bowie’s “Heroes” in German as “Werden Wir Helen fur Einen Tag.” This is part of Waititi’s effort to satirize Nazi Germany’s championing of white Aryan supremacy and the horrors they inflicted during World War II. The movie might be funny and witty but it is sincerely serious in showing Jojo’s eventual transformation from a fascistic young Nazi boy to someone who realizes that it is love and kindness towards others that will lead him to redemption.