Grackles review Jojo Rabbit
Directed by Taika Waititi
Reviewed by Scott Ray and Charlie Riccardelli
Set in Germany during World War II, Taika Waititi’s satire Jojo Rabbit follows Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten-year-old who’s a proud member of the Hitler Youth. He earns the nickname ‘Jojo Rabbit’ from the older kids at his Hitler Youth camp when he fails to kill a rabbit to prove he’s hardened enough to be a true Nazi. With the encouragement of his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler, Jojo seeks out alternate means to prove his valor, but he faces his greatest test when he discovers his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has hidden Jewish teenager Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home. Though he first wants to turn Elsa in to the Nazis, Jojo keeps her secret under the guise of learning more about Jews, but soon a friendship blossoms between the two that will test Jojo’s loyalty to the Third Reich.
Revisiting the blend of farce and heart from his earlier films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi takes bold steps to skewer those who are driven by hate while championing the power of human connections that build love and compassion. Jojo Rabbit aims to be more than a historical portrait with its whimsical irony and pop song soundtrack that includes the famous covers of The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and David Bowie’s “Hero”.
Charlie Riccardelli: One of my favorite films of 2018 was Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, an acerbic satire about the fight for power in Soviet Russia in the days after Stalin died. I mention this movie because it’s a gut-busting comedy and frightening story that deals with some dark material. While watching Jojo Rabbit, I kept turning over in my mind why The Death of Stalin worked so well as a social comedy and why Jojo Rabbit did not in the least. Dark periods of history like these aren’t above skewering, but Waititi, usually such an assured director, is far too glib here. He’s prone to easy Nazi jokes that are tonally off from when the film steers into Wes Anderson-style whimsy or the grim realities of life during wartime in Germany. What did it even mean besides love being better than hate?
Scott Ray: What did it mean, indeed. If it meant to teach me that love was better than hate in all cases I’d have to say it wasn’t effective. I’d say there are cases where hate is perhaps the appropriate response. For example, I hated this film.
Look, I get that the point of the film—very evidently underscored in a pre-credits epigraph from Rilke, no less—is that love conquers all. You’d think a movie with whimsy-Nazis would interrogate the simplicity of that statement a little. I know that history has gotten a little hazy lately, but I think I’m on pretty sturdy ground when I propose that love alone did not conquer the Third Reich.
Jojo Rabbit doesn’t add up to anything more than a tired shot at flimsy aphorism because it hasn’t thought beyond how pretty it feels to recite pithy phrases. The whole thing feels like an adolescent conception of a crazy idea. “What if this kid’s imaginary friend is Hitler? Wouldn’t that be hilarious?” In execution we see how empty and tasteless this idea is. This is a pretty tired thing to rehash right now, with directors like Todd Phillips claiming that you can’t make comedy anymore (nevermind Booksmart, a comedy, being one of my favorite films of the year) because films like Road Trip haven’t exactly aged like fine wine, but obviously you can tell Nazi jokes. This film proves that. The question, which I don’t think Jojo Rabbit answered at all is, why tell Nazi jokes?
CR: Nazi jokes and imaginary Hitlers are nothing more than a cheap veneer to create the illusion of provocation without the film actually taking any risks. When Mel Brooks did it in The Producers back in 1968, he was pushing the limits of bad taste. Hell, all the way back in 1942, the anti-Nazi farce To Be or Not to Be had jokes like an SS officer saying of an actor, “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” Could you imagine what a risk it must have been to make a joke like that being made in the middle of World War II? Watch Jojo Rabbit and tell me that characters repeating ‘heil’ for a laugh isn’t much more than hacky schtick. It’s only edgy when you realize that the distributor Fox Searchlight is owned by Disney. Waititi uses children as the voice boxes for many of these gags, the joke largely being that cute kids saying profanities and talking about fascism. South Park’s been doing that with the Cartman character for more than 20 years, and they have more bite than Jojo Rabbit.
Speaking of the kids, we should talk about Jojo himself. He wants to be a good little Nazi. It’s actually a tragic situation because he was born into Nazi Germany, and his mother struggles to suppress her own anti-fascist sentiments before her son because he doesn’t know a world absent of Nazism. The movie follows Jojo growing into a mature, compassionate worldview through what he witnesses as well as his friendship with Elsa, but well past the point where he should know better he exerts some cruel power over Elsa just because he can. The movie never holds Jojo responsible, if only to himself, for the casual meanness he displays. I suppose you could chalk it up to the way children are so often oblivious to the hurt their words and actions can do, but the reverberations are so casually glossed over. It felt so naïve when I considered it beside the French classic Au Revoir les Enfants. That film takes place in Nazi-occupied France and a young boy accidentally betrays his Jewish friend’s identity with a glance, and you better believe that glance came with a lifetime of guilt.
SR: None of the characters felt fully formed to me. In order to humanize Jojo to Elsa, his mother remembers him as a little boy afraid of lightning who liked chocolate cake—not the most dynamic or unique recollection. Treacle is as close as the film can get to feeling. Roman Griffin Davis’s performance was fine I suppose, though he didn’t have much to work with. More compelling was Thomasin McKenzie, though her character was mostly left to react and educate Jojo as she is physically confined to his and his mother’s house. I found Scarlett Johansson’s German accent difficult to listen to, especially in a film where only certain characters had a German accent. In one of the more serious scenes, a scene striving for some sort of emotional depth, Rosie attempts to comfort Elsa by telling her, “trust without fear; that’s what being a woman is.” To me it seems another empty aphorism that hasn’t really been thought through. In some ways the moments of pathos in the movie worked less well than its mostly failed attempts at humor.
I think the reason the humor falls so flat and feels so off-putting is the way the film looks at the Nazis. There was humor in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds—in the Nazi fealty to the grandiose propaganda they repeated to each other, in their affection for grotesque pomp, in their ostentatious appearances—but the Nazis were still recognized as not only genocidal monsters, but extremely effective, terrifying, genocidal monsters. In Jojo Rabbit, the Nazis are mostly incompetent, and their dehumanizing rhetoric is repeated for the laughs. What is funny about hearing this stuff? How is repeating this bile satire?
CR: You’re correct in saying that the Nazis don’t ever act monstrous. More often, they are like the bumbling Germans of Hogan’s Heroes. McKenzie is the only performer who walks away unscathed because she grounds the film in humanity when the rest of the performers are trafficking in false sentimentality. She was the teen star of last year’s seriously underseen drama Leave No Trace where she similarly served as the emotional crutch. Unfortunately, she can’t carry the whole movie on her back.
We’ve mentioned many wonderful films in this conversation, but if I could steer readers to any title that rights everything the Jojo Rabbit does wrong, it would be Charlie Chaplin’s classic The Great Dictator. Jojo Rabbit clearly owes that film a creative debt, but that film’s message of love is so much more vital and alive, even when you divorce it of the context of the time Chaplin was speaking for. Maybe Waititi needs to speak for our time, or at least recognize that he’s done this so well already in films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople that he doesn’t need to be so declarative in his intentions.
Scott Ray is from Mississippi. He is a PhD student in fiction at the University of North Texas. His work has appeared in Hobart, Measure, Jellyfish Review and elsewhere. He is the Production Editor at American Literary Review.
Charlie Riccardelli graduated from the University of North Texas with his Ph.D. in Creative Writing and earned his M.F.A. at William Paterson University. A New Jersey native, he currently lives in Denton, Texas where he is a professor for the Department of Technical Communication, as well as their academic advisor. He previously served as an editor/writer for American Microreviews and Interviews and assistant fiction editor for American Literary Review. His short stories and essays have appeared in various publications, including film articles for PopMatters and Hobart.