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“Jojo Rabbit”, Your Knife Is Calling

Jojo Rabbit!

Near the end of the war when the Fatherland began running low on father figures, you had to make do with what was rationed to you.

Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Jojo Rabbit One of the Year’s Best Films!

That doesn’t mean much to anyone outside my own head, but it’s fun to type and just stare at it for a while. What if I said things and they mattered? Pretty cool daydream, right? Sometimes it’s comforting to traipse around in a world of pure imagination, until you’re forced to look at it from another angle and recognize when you’re wallowing in nonsense.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Once upon a time circa 1945 (more on that later), there was a young lad named Johannes Betzler (first-timer Roman Griffin Davis) who turned ten years old and was excited to reach the minimum age to enroll in the Hitler Youth (or Hitlerjugend, as we learned in my old German classes). All his life, he’d been Adolf Hitler’s biggest fan. His room was covered with Hitler photos, Nazi art, and whatever themed merchandise he could scrounge up. Jojo loved Hitler like Bart Simpson loved Krusty the Clown. It would be supremely easy to spend all day brainstorming more demeaning parallels between the two figureheads, but let’s move on.

Unfortunately things don’t go well at camp. “Jojo” has a heart for servitude to go with his official Hitler Youth standard-issue scary-looking Nazi knife at his side, but he’s smaller, weaker, and klutzier than the other boys. When he fails more than one test of macho mettle, he’s mocked and sneered at and labeled a “rabbit”, which is the animal the Germans used to invoke for cowardice in much the same way we Americans call people “chicken”. Imagine if you will, had Biff Tannen managed to hold on more tightly to the time-traveling victory he snatched from the jaws of defeat, the entire Back to the Future trilogy could have retroactively been renamed Marty Chicken and none of us would’ve ever known anything was wrong. Such is Jojo’s level of disgrace.

Jojo consoles himself with other, more meager ways to serve his country. He posts Nazi flyers. He works on illustrations in hopes of one day publishing a searing exposé of what he thinks Jews are really like, based on his years of fanciful indoctrination. He behaves and obeys his mom (Scarlett Johansson), who’s doing the best she can considering she’s recently lost a daughter and her husband is out of the picture. And because he’s a good little WWII German, Jojo listens for advice and compliments from his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler, played by writer/director Taika Waititi. You might remember him from such films as Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, and Thor: Ragnarok, which some of you are now probably calling The Best Film of 2017 just to make Martin Scorsese cry. Shame on you.

Jojo accepts his rut, but would rather be on the front lines fighting those dumb stupid Allies who are poised to invade any day now. But then his entire world turns upside-down when he stumbles across a most unwelcome surprise: a Jewish teen (Thomasin McKenzie) living in the wall of his house. Is she imaginary too? Just how evil is she? Did she use Jew magic to sneak in? Does Mom know about her? Should he report her? Could he knife her? Where are her horns? Why does she look so ordinary? Why doesn’t she murder and devour him? Jojo has many questions.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Jojo’s instructors at Hitler Youth camp include Academy Award Winner Sam Rockwell as Captain K, a commanding officer whose war wounds remand him to the back lines and maybe affected his judgment; Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones, John Wick) as K’s head lackey who never leaves his side; and bonus comic relief Rebel Wilson as proof that women could also be Nazis with big responsibilities and a nationalistic disregard for children’s safety. Later in the film, The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant (also Logan‘s Caliban) pops in as a Nazi inspector on a mission that seems like a frivolous diversion until you realize what spurred it.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? If he was 10 in early 1945, give or take six months, that means Jojo was born circa 1935. His parents would’ve known a time before the Nazis came to power, but those overlords were Jojo’s status quo from day one. Their way of life is all he’s ever known, and he’s never been given reason to believe that Nazism is anything but awesome. As the opening credits stress in all their unsubtle glory — using a German version of a very familiar pop single, rerecorded by the original artists in 1964 — to some followers, Hitler was like a rock star. They yearned to meet him, they shrieked in his presence, and they went home in tears because they managed to get that close to their hero.

Essentially, society in 1930s-1940s Germany raised Jojo to be a full-on Nazi fanboy. He’s a total Hitler geek. If there were a German Tiger Beat magazine, Hitler could’ve been on the cover and Jojo would’ve ripped off the cover and taped it onto one of his school folders. In a more straight-faced tragedy (say, in the hands of a Michael Haneke), this film would chronicle Jojo’s deeper descent into darkness and eventual acceptance of minority genocide as an industry, a hobby, and a definition of his meaning and purpose in life. In the hands of a master humorist like Waititi, the more intriguing question is posed: can Jojo learn critical lessons about bigotry, empathy, and maybe even sexism…and thereby evolve into a morally upright worldview? Can he make the leap to post-geek life?

The trailer focused on the broad caricature of Looney Tunes Hitler, which, yes, is awesome for at least the first ninety minutes. Dark satire is offered in heaping portions, particularly in the Axis of Zany that is the Rockwell/Allen/Wilson triumvirate, who wouldn’t be out of place in an old Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker production. (I’m warmly reminded of the one memorable scene in Jerry Zucker’s 1999 comedy Rat Race, in which road-tripping heroes make a pit stop at a Klaus Barbi Museum.) But the laughs are not nonstop. While on screen he’s all outrageous gamboling and frolicking in the Charlie Chaplin/Mel Brooks tradition, but when he’s behind the camera, every 10-15 minutes Waititi gut-punches the audience to remind them where they are. It’s hard not to wince. Tears were a possibility more than once. It’s all fun and games until the Nazis do the cruel Nazism and remind us why the Great War generated a sequel no one ever wanted.

Some flourishes that seem ludicrous aren’t too far removed from real history. By the end of WWII, Germany was running out of viable young male soldiers and had to begin settling for whoever they could draft, whether elderly or underage. The Hitler Youth continued to be a thing until the end of the war, which meant kids 10 and up were learning practical warfare skills because someone had to keep fighting. The film’s rendition of those classes come off like The Bad New Bears doing Red Dawn. Waititi is only half-joking.

The imaginary-friend moments are from a kid’s perspective and not too far removed from the kind of conversations a ten-year-old would think up in their private moments. Waititi joyously deflates the evil pomposity inherent in the subject, but it’s shocking how much of the surroundings are not so grossly exaggerated. (Well, okay, a scene of synchronized-swimming Hitler might be a bit over the top.) But when we see Jojo’s best friend Yorki (first-timer Archie Yates) helping lug around a rocket launcher…by May 1945 that may not have been 100% impossible, as a desperate, faltering country had likely tossed Best Practices for young people’s training right out the window.

Nitpicking? Special thanks to my wife Anne, ever the WWII history aficionado, whose insights compose much of the next few paragraphs that came about as we tossed thoughts about the film back and forth over email. To wit:

Jojo’s naive misconceptions of his hero Hitler include a few minor oversights. Hitler quit smoking long before the war and wouldn’t be carrying cigarettes to lend. His own personal regiment wasn’t even issued cigarettes in their kit. He was a vegetarian and therefore would only have dined on animal if it were sculpted from tofu, which may not yet have been a thing in 1945 Deutschland.

Meanwhile in the “reality” inflicted upon Jojo, animal cruelty was firmly outlawed in Nazi Germany, in direct contrast to one hideous scene early in the film involving a nasty act by a camp counselor. Granted, they’re later demoted for other misdeeds, but the implication of Hitler Youth “hazing” in such a manner raises an eyebrow, not only for the clash with the record but also for the inherent horror in the real-life double standard. Animals received better protections than human minorities because, uh, I guess because animals couldn’t be Jewish? Trés dichotomous, and yet there it was.

Also at odds with the co-ed Hitler Youth camp depicted here: by the 1940s, girls and boys were absolutely not sent to the same training camps, especially after a spike in unplanned teen pregnancies occurred in the mid-’30s that caused parental complaints. Granted, historical-sexism jokes are hard for period-piece writers to resist ever since Mad Men, but still.

At that same camp, the Youth are surprisingly well outfitted for 1945. Uniforms had to be purchased by the families themselves. Many Germans didn’t have much money to throw around on uniforms in the last few months of the war. In his memoir Hitler’s Last Courier, former Hitler employee Armin Lehmann wrote about how he witnessed Hitler Youth induction in the late winter/early spring of 1945 in which the kids wore plain white shirts and lacked their official Hitler Youth standard-issue scary-looking Nazi knives. The fact that Jojo had such a knife as a freshly enrolled Youth rather than a fully accredited inductee points toward either (a) Jojo’s family being loaded enough to buy all that for him, even without a father in the house; or (b) Waititi’s desire to simplify the Hitler Youth portrayal for the sake of getting that knife into the film so it could serve multiple plot points.

(Otherwise, Anne thought the camp uniforms were spot-on. She also noticed a subtle shift in seasons for at least one scene when characters sport the Youth’s official cold-weather gear — dark ski pants, jacket and cap over a brown shirt. High-five to costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo, another veteran of Thor: Ragnarok.)

The rest of this section deals with the film’s rather compressed historical timeline and may see a need for a minor spoiler alert. Feel free to skip down to the usual “What’s to like?” section if you’d rather not, but it’s really bugging us…

…so follow the breadcrumbs, if you will:

  • The film ends on May 7, 1945, when Germany officially surrendered. By this time Jojo has updated us that he’s now 10-and-a-half years old.
  • German kids were eligible to enroll in the Hitler Youth in the January after their tenth birthday. IF they passed the screening process (which included plumbing the depths of their family’s history and beliefs), then they attended the nationwide induction ceremony held each year on April 20th, Hitler’s birthday.
  • In 1945 Hitler died ten days after his birthday. One week after that came Germany’s surrender.
  • The camp kids wore their summer uniforms, which means Jojo was not at camp as a mere wintertime enrollee. That winter was not a warm one.

If we assume the film begins with Jojo’s full induction as we first thought, that means his story began April 20, 1945, and ended May 7, 1945, and the entire film spans eighteen days in all. Given the extreme events of his final day at camp, we had assumed his recovery time took weeks or months. For all events to line up with reality, either Jojo lied about his age to himself in the mirror like an elderly Hollywood actress, or else his time-off was far shorter than implied because he had Wolverine’s healing powers. To say nothing of how little time that leaves for him to have spent with the secret Jew in his wall and the requisite relational developments.

We realize the truth is probably It’s Only a Movie, You Should Really Just Relax, but we remain nonetheless vexed. It’s annoying to see history getting ignored or simply not-learned like that.

So what’s to like? Obviously Jojo Rabbit isn’t a film for everyone. Some may consider silly slapstick Hitler an effrontery on principle with no room for exceptions. Completely understandable and non-debatable. As for me, I’m a longtime fan of sharp satire, perceptive parody, and the occasional screwball spoof. Before I dropped out of college, one of the best papers I ever wrote was for a satire seminar. Dissections and deconstructions of choice targets with a swordsmanlike finesse are totally my thing. Sometimes that means flirting with the thin lines separating the seasoned satirist from the looming realms of the tacky, the tasteless, and the terrible. Waititi danced precariously on that line, but ultimately I didn’t see him slip a single toe over the mark. (Your Mileage May Vary.)

I’ve also seen arguments that in declining to directly address the Holocaust, it’s an automatic dismal failure. Jojo coming to grips with the totality of the Holocaust and his innocent support and enabling of its loathsome perpetrators might be a tad too all-consuming for the small-scale human drama Waititi intended here. Maybe they’re saving that for a sequel, working hard to ensure it doesn’t fall into the same traps as Life Is Beautiful or that one suppressed Jerry Lewis movie.

There’s far more to the film than “lol Hitler and Nazis suck”, though that through-line pervades plentifully enough to satisfy. The film’s point also isn’t “well actually there were also some very nice and very good Nazis!” Anyone reducing the complex portrayals here on that oversimplistic level wasn’t paying attention or has narrow preconceptions that weren’t fully serviced. Most of the Germans of Jojo Rabbit fall into three categories:

  • Its straight-up evil devotees happy in their work, who deserved any and every punishment meted out to them.
  • Germans who disagreed with their dictator and conspired to undermine the evil around them, or at least outlive it. Many of those Germans are here only as corpses in ghastly, publicly displayed cautionary tales. Another such individual, if not completely innocent, survives just long enough to show promise of a change of heart and/or a complicated motive.
  • The suckered youths taught from birth that hate is good, books are bad, and minorities are worse…and yet who show the potential to outgrow their morally stunted upbringing.

Waititi’s scathing skewering of Hitler and his lockstep minions is the louder, flashier text. Woven into the center of that gaudy, fabulous fabric is a deep-rooted optimism that humans raised inside a befouled bubble can learn to do and be better. Jojo the fanboy may be insufferable in declaring his unconditional Hitler worship, but maybe — just maybe — it isn’t too late to find a way into that impressionable boy’s heart, a way to lead him out of darkness and into a brighter world where his role in society isn’t defined by a sharp, shiny knife.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Jojo Rabbit end credits, but a few extras can be found at the film’s official site, including a link to a very special take on the Downfall meme, along with a message from Waititi himself:

“I have always been drawn to stories that see life through children’s eyes. In this case, it happens to be a kid that we might not normally invest in.

My grandfather fought against the Nazis in World War II and I’ve always been fascinated by that time and those events. When my mother told me about Christine Leunen’s book Caging Skies, I was drawn in by the fact it was told through the eyes of a German child indoctrinated into hate by adults.

Having children of my own, I have become even more aware that adults are supposed to guide children through life and raise them to be better versions of themselves, and yet in times of war, adults are often doing the opposite. In fact, from a child’s point of view, during these times adults appear chaotic and absurd when all the world needs is guidance and balance.

I experienced a certain level of prejudice growing up as a Māori Jew, so making JOJO RABBIT has been a reminder, especially now, that we need to educate our kids about tolerance and continue to remind ourselves that there’s no place in this world for hate.

Children are not born with hate, they are trained to hate. I hope the humour in JOJO RABBIT helps engage a new generation; it’s important to keep finding new and inventive ways of telling the horrific story of World War II again and again for new generations, so that our children can listen, learn, and move forward, unified into the future.

Here’s to putting an end to ignorance and replacing it with love.”

Amen.

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