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Non-Review Review: JoJo Rabbit

JoJo Rabbit is a sincere and sweet movie, but also a hopelessly misguided one.

There’s a lot of warm humanism underpinning Taika Waititi’s adaptation of the novel Caged Skies, about the eponymous young boy who finds himself wrapped up in the propaganda of Nazi Germany. Johannes Betzler is a ten year old boy with who fixates upon being “the bestest, most loyal little Nazi [Hitler will have] ever known.” He has even fashioned his imaginary friend in the form of Adolf Hitler. However, his life is turned upside down when he discovers a Jewish girl living in the crawl space in his dead sister’s bedroom.

He’s going to be Fuhrer-ious.

Waititi’s film has a surprisingly solid grasp of tone, given the material in play. JoJo Rabbit is sweet and sincere, pointed and humane. It is as playful as Waititi’s work on The Hunt for the Wilderpeople or even Thor: Ragnarok, but also appreciates the need to handle certain topis with care and consideration. There’s a warm empathy that radiates from the film, particularly in the dynamic between Jojo and his mother Rosie, who is doing everything she can to protect her son even as she watches his radicalisation.

However, despite all of this, JoJo Rabbit hinges on a fatal miscalculation. It is a story that makes a conscious effort to humanise its Nazi subjects. It is a film so rigourously invested in affirming JoJo’s humanity that it never quite confronts the audience with the horror of his denial of that humanity to others. JoJo Rabbit is a film that suggests the greatest human tragedy in the Second World War is the poor little Nazi boy, and can barely bring itself to look at the actual horrors that he inflicted.

He ain’t Hitler, he’s my buddy.

So much of JoJo Rabbit is tied up in asserting that JoJo is a good person underneath his brown khaki uniform. Indeed, the two most important supporting characters in the film – his mother Rosie and the Jewish girl Elsa – exist primarily to fret over Jojo’s fanaticism and to serve as potential vehicles for his redemption. After all, Elsa is introduced reacting with understandable horror to this little boy in a Nazi uniform. Asked to tell Jojo about the Jews, she replies, “We’re just like you. Except human.” The implication is that Elsa has come to see JoJo as something less than human.

Of course, this is an ironic inversion of the way in which Nazi propaganda would dehumanise the Jewish people. However, within the context of JoJo Rabbit, there’s a strange sense of “both sides”-ism. It isn’t enough that Jojo comes to recognise that Elsa is human. The film insists that Elsa has to see JoJo as human. This is weirdly similar to the awkward heartwarming morals of family friendly films like Zootopia or Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, stories which assume that moderation is the key. JoJo helps thaw relations with Elsa when he suggests “negotiations” as a tactic.

Explosive Content.

The most affecting relationship in JoJo Rabbit is the relationship between Rosie and JoJo. Rosie has lost a husband and a daughter to the war. She finds herself confronted with the possibility that she might also lose her son to it. She refuses to give up on him, even knowing the risk that he poses to herself and to Elsa. “I know he’s in there somewhere,” Rosie tells Elsa. “In the end that’s all you have. Hope that your only remaining child is not a ghost.”

Many of the films best scenes hinge on the dynamic between Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis. There is a commendable tenderness to their interactions, an honesty and a vulnerability to both performers. Waititi does deft work with the duo, both as writer and director. It is possible to fully understand the battle that Rosie is waging – not just for her homeland, but also for her son’s soul. It’s a powerful and moving arc, nestled within a broad comedy.

The Overton Window.

Similarly, Elsa spends a lot of the movie assuring JoJo that he is a good person underneath it all. “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo,” she tells him. “You’re a ten year old kid who loves swastikas, likes dressing up in fancy uniforms and wants to be part of a club. You’re not one of them.” While there’s a lot of empathy and compassion in that sentiment, the movie never bothers to explore if there is a meaningful distinction. JoJo repeatedly endangers Elsa’s existence, whether intentionally or accidentally, and his mere presence is a threat to her.

As such, JoJo Rabbit offers a very strange approach to the material, particularly in the context where Nazism (or Neo-Nazisms or just plain white supremacy) is on the rise once again. It’s fair to ask whether young boys like JoJo deserve sympathy and compassion, but it’s uncomfortable to foreground that in a story about the horrors of Nazi Germany. There are a lot of people who deserve a lot more empathy than JoJo, but the movie glosses over the particulars of the horrors of the Third Reich in order to focus on the moral dilemma posed by JoJo.

Or Elsa…

Then again, this perhaps speaks to the target audience for films like JoJo Rabbit. This film is not aimed at the victims of resurgent white nationalism, nor as a critique of resurgent white nationalism. JoJo Rabbit has been branded an “anti-hate satire”, but it isn’t satirising anything. Instead, the target market for JoJo Rabbit is people like Rosie. It is for people watching their sons and relatives being radicalised and feeling powerless in the face of that, clinging to the hope that those relatives are still good people beneath the robes and the tiki torches.

It’s a staggeringly privileged and tone-deaf approach to the march of fascism, and one which feels particularly frustrating given the film’s charm and warmth. To be fair, there are moments at which JoJo Rabbit acknowledges this. Coming across a group of traitors hanging in the town square, Rosie forces JoJo to look at their lifeless bodies. “Look,” she commands. “What did they do?” JoJo asks. Rosie responds, “What they could.” The film lacks that conviction. The climax hinges of a similar shocking, brutal reveal. However, the camera cannot bring itself to look at that carnage.

Awkward dinnertable conversation.

Late in the film, another Nazi commiserates with JoJo about a horrific loss that he has suffered. Wearing their Nazi uniforms, the officer assures JoJo, “She was a good person.” There is an awkward dramatic beat before he clarifies, “An actual good person.” It is the closest that the film comes to acknowledging that even a nominally “good” Nazi would still be complicit in crimes beyond human reckoning. However, all of this angst just serves to map the arc of JoJo’s redemption. “I’m a Nazi,” he complains. “I’m the enemy.” It is all about him.

It doesn’t help that while Waititi does great work with the warmth and humanity at the heart of the film, he pulls back from the other extremes. JoJo Rabbit is utterly unwilling to follow its grim premise through to its logical conclusion. Adorable child characters survive until the end of the film, because they are adorable child characters and killing them might alienate the intended audience. “It seems like I can never die,” deadpans one child character after improbably surviving a disastrous screw-up.

Rosie outlook.

Of course, lots of children did die. Lots of Jews died. JoJo Rabbit doesn’t necessarily ignore it or gloss over it – Elsa is quite open about the horror of her life and the cost that the Holocaust has taken on her. However, it refuses to look directly at it. It refuses to acknowledge it head-on. This feels misguided at best and openly cynical at worst, a grim calculation of exactly how much reality the audience is willing to take within their comforting fantasy.

Rosie forces JoJo to look head-on at the horrors of Nazi Germany. JoJo Rabbit keeps the horrors out of shot; at best these horrors are glimpsed briefly in the distance, while maybe the legs are allowed to dangle in a shot that places the focus where the film intends: on the horror of a poor little Nazi boy who has lived a sheltered and privileged life. It’s a frustrating, unsatisfying approach that robs the film of any real power.

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