Directed by: Taika Waititi
Premise: Set in Germany during World War II, ten year old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a fanatical member of the Hitler Youth. His commitment to the Third Reich is tested when he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic.
What Works: In recent years, World War II movies have sought to put a human face on the Third Reich. Titles such as Valkyrie and Downfall and The Reader offer a more nuanced view of Nazi Germany and the people who served it. This trend, when it is done well, is mostly for the better. For decades Nazis were depicted as inhuman and evil and that approach obfuscated the most important fact about the crimes of the Third Reich – that these staggering affronts to decency and civility were carried out by human beings against other human beings. The challenge for films like this is to acknowledge the humanity of the Nazis without downplaying or excusing what they did. Jojo Rabbit is one of the better examples of this kind of filmmaking. The premise is perfectly suited for success. Rather than focusing on an adult or a soldier, Jojo Rabbit is the story of a member of the Hitler Youth who is so devoted to his fandom that Adolf Hitler is his imaginary friend. The boy’s commitment to Nazism is strained upon discovering that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in the attic. This is a story of a young man deprogramming from his hateful ideology and Jojo Rabbit addresses the moral complexity of the situation in a way that is smart while allowing the boy to act authentically his age. Jojo Rabbit has the sensibility of a children’s picture while dealing with mature subject matter. Filmmaker Taika Waititi reconciles those qualities and this picture is skillfully made with a tight control of its tone. Jojo Rabbit also has some exceptional performances, chief among them Roman Griffin Davis in the title role. Davis’ character begins the film as a villain who doesn’t realize that’s what he is and the young actor’s performance has great subtlety. Scarlett Johansson is also impressive as Jojo’s mother. She loves her son but she is also afraid of what he could become and the relationship between parent and child is complicated. Also notable is Sam Rockwell as a Nazi official with a secret. Rockwell has a similar complexity and his performance is funny and sly.
What Doesn’t: Jojo Rabbit is satirical and so it plays fast and loose with historical fact. There are a number of anachronisms in this movie but Jojo Rabbit is not intended to be taken literally and so its historical fidelity is entitled to some latitude. The one element of Jojo Rabbit that is not quite convincing is the young Jewish girl hiding in the attic played by Thomasin McKenzie. Her character is a little too precocious and a touch too witty and droll for someone who has lost her family and lives in a crawl space.
Bottom Line: Jojo Rabbit finds a fresh approach to World War II and offers a new way of thinking about it. This is a smart and craftily made film that is both a serious take on the problem of fascism and a lot of fun.
Episode: #776 (November 17, 2019)