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The humor and humanity of “Jojo Rabbit”

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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
4stars
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Archie Yates, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Taika Waititi
Director: Taika Waititi
Release Date: Oct. 18, 2019

There are questions that must be answered before we can discuss the considerable merits of Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit.”

In the year of our lord 2020, is it “too soon” to make a comedy about Nazi-ism? And should one ever make light of a regime that took millions of innocent lives?

This is not a new question, mind you. It was asked back when Mel Brooks penned “Springtime for Hitler” and when “Hogan’s Heroes” aired on CBS. Hell, it was asked when Charlie Chaplin made “The Great Dictator,” and Hitler was still alive when that movie came out.

There are no easy answers to these questions, and your answers are quite possibly different from mine. The questions certainly sparked a lot of conversation among the comedians interviewed in Ferne Pearlstein’s exemplary 2017 documentary “The Last Laugh,” which is predicated on these very conundrums.

But I’m inclined to side, for the first and most likely last time in my life, with Sarah Silverman who had this to say in Pearlstein’s film:

“Comedy puts light onto darkness and darkness can’t live where there’s light. So that’s why it’s important to talk about things that are taboo become otherwise they just stay in this dark place. And they become dangerous.”

As some have expressed concern about the rise of white nationalism in recent years, Silverman’s thoughts seem prescient, I think. Maybe the problem isn’t that we’re making fun of the Nazis. Maybe the problem is that we haven’t been.

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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

On that count, Waititi’s “anti-hate satire” is wickedly effective, if occasionally broad and silly. The one-liners targeting Aryan supremacy start early and never let up.

“It has been scientifically proven that we Aryans are 1,000 times more advanced and civilized than any other race,” Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) instructs her charges in the Hitler youth program. ”Now, get your things together kids, it’s time to burn some books!”

“I am descended from those who wrestled angels and killed giants,” Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish girl, tells young Nazi-in-training Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis). “We were chosen by God. You were chosen by a pathetic little man who can’t even grow a full moustache.”

But to simply recount the jokes – and there are many including a contender for the Dad Jokes Hall of Fame that I dare not spoil for you- does “Jojo Rabbit” a disservice, I think. Buried under the humor is a thoughtful, touching drama about the battle for a young boy’s soul and for his humanity. That the film manages to be both laugh-at-loud hilarious and wrenchingly sad at times is just an added bonus.

The centerpiece of the film is our titular character – a kind young boy caught up in Nazi fervor toward the end of World War II. So great is his passion that his imaginary friend is none other than Adolph Hitler himself (played by Waititi).

During the day, Jojo receives instruction from his Hitler Youth superiors including Rahm and Colonel Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). He spends the evenings with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) who preaches kindness and mercy and is secretly hiding a Jewish girl in their attic.

And so the conflict is set: Will Jojo be a good German or a good person?

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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

This internal battle could have easily fallen flat, so one can’t shower enough praise on young Davis, who does exemplary work. He can be funny and poignant and heartbreaking – often simultaneously- and does a fine job externalizing his character’s internal struggles. It really is something of an acting master class.

But, honestly, the whole cast- unknowns and “names” alike- is tremendous.

Another newcomer, Archie Yates, has some killer one-liners as Jojo’s impossibly precocious co-Nazi-in-training Yorki. Between this and 2018’s ‘Leave No Trace”, McKenzie has established herself as a young actress to watch.

I couldn’t be happier that Rockwell broke his own “don’t play any more racists” rule as few actors can infuse heinous characters with humanity the way he can. Johansson has arguably never played a nicer character, and she is this film’s heartbeat even when she is off screen.

Stephen Merchant steals the show in a single scene as a Gestapo agent. Wilson manages to be tolerable and even funny at times, which is a high achievement for her.

Waititi himself may be the cast’s MVP though. This is a difficult role- Waititi himself has admitted he took the role in part because no one wanted to play Hitler- and it is truly thrilling to see how the character evolves from being Jojo’s goofy best friend to something much more akin to the real Adolph Hitler. Waititi gives one of 2019’s best performances, comedic or otherwise.

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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Waititi acquits himself equally well as scriptwriter and director. This cannot have been an easy script to write, and the tonal shifts that happen– often within the same scene- could have been absolutely whiplash-inducing. If the film always seems one false move away from completely falling apart, it never does, and that is a true testament to Waititi’s skill. There’s a reason he won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for this film.

As a director, Waititi has crafted some beautifully indelible moments- from a very literal rendering of “butterflies in your stomach” to one of the most gutwrenching- yet tasteful- shots I’ve seen in years.

Waititi’s style has been compared to both Wes Anderson and Mel Brooks, which is pretty great company to be in, I think. But the comparisons also do him a disservice because, frankly, I have never seen a film like “Jojo Rabbit”. That it manages to be funny, heartbreaking, smart and thoughtful – all while making you want to be a better person- is nothing short of a miracle.

“Jojo Rabbit” (rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence and language) is a film that sits with you and forces you to contemplate its humor, its horrors and, most importantly, its humanity. It shows us that, even in the darkest times, light can still exist and even thrive.

We, like Jojo, are all caught in a constant tug-of-war between hatred and love, darkness and light. The stories we consume can play a part in that battle and can help determine the victor. That’s why films like “Jojo Rabbit” are so important.

So is it “too soon” for “Jojo Rabbit”? Honestly, looking at the state of our world today, it probably didn’t come soon enough.

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at staticandscreen@gmail.com.

 

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