Coming out of a screening of Jojo Rabbit last week (my second), I asked my wife her thoughts on the film. She said she liked it, but didn’t think the message was all that ground-breaking. Fair enough, the notion of “hate” as learned behavior children acquire early on and has long-lasting effects has been dealt with on screen before.
Then I saw a clip on Facebook.
In this video essay, a very angry girl in her early teens argues against the separation of church and state. She believes that if Christianity is kept out of school and government, so it should “liberal ideas” like abortion or transgender rights. Her argument holds no water, but that’s not the point. The rigidness of her reasoning reveals she has never been exposed to a different set of beliefs. The teen is so convinced, she is happy to put it on tape for the world to see. Forever and ever.
Enter Jojo Rabbit.
The film dips into the fantasy genre to tell the story of a Nazi youth coming to the realization everything he thinks he knows is wrong. When we first meet Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), he is a true believer. So much so, he has modeled his imaginary friend after Hitler (Taika Waititi, also the writer/director).
There is, however, a core of decency inside Jojo thanks to his mother (a superb Scarlett Johansson), a willful woman who’s not big on the Third Reich. It’s the reason why the kid is unable to kill a defenseless rabbit when asked to do so and, later, doesn’t immediately surrenders a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace) hiding in his house.
Jojo is torn between Nazi’s portrait of the Jews and the girl, who doesn’t resemble what he has been taught about them. The dichotomy opens the door to critical thinking and the realization he may be siding with the bad guys.
Jojo Rabbit does a very good job keeping the proceedings light until the weight of the situation becomes so unbearable, it breaks through the heightened reality. The absurdity of the regime is consistently underlined, particularly by Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf, a disenchanted official in charge of training the Hitler’s Youth. This approach takes all the power of the Nazi ideology: It’s dangerous, but idiotic.
The film has been accused by some critics of both trivializing the Holocaust (it’s called satire, Richard Brody) and displaying a level of naivete that makes it impossible to take seriously. Call me a softy, but the idea of friendship and love breaking through years of indoctrination is a formidable one. Four planets.
Jojo Rabbit is now playing at Scotiabank Theatre in Saskatoon.