Due to the strangeness of certain decisions in the film, as well as an overarching public narrative about it being too odd, it’s easy to dismiss Jojo Rabbit as ludicrous and silly. This is especially true in the beginning of the film, before it descends into more familiar WWII terrain (heavy despondency and meta-commentary about how we are not, in fact, all that different, and we should treat each other better). Yet I loved the decisions Waititi made as director and as an actor in the role as Jojo’s imaginary friend, Hitler.
BUT, critics may retort, it was childish and silly and over-the-top and completely out of place in a movie about WWII. To which I would reply, bull…and may I add…shit…
One of my few gripes in the world of storytelling is what I have dubbed the ‘this story would be better with Nazis’ affect (I’m working on the name). Basically what happens amidst a bout of TSWBBWN, is a perfectly good story, one filled with lovely characters and haunting internal conflict, will, for indiscernible reasons, be placed during WWII, seemingly in the hopes that this backdrop will provide a more tense story arch for the movie or book (rarely a TV show).
This drives me mad for a couple reasons, one, it doesn’t usually make the story any better, it just creates awkward, horseshoed scenes where Jews show up, or Nazis impede character’s external journeys etc… without any real roots in a WWII commentary.
Secondly, it waters down those stories created specifically made to comment on WWII and its impact on people, a fertile ground for storytelling, that is growing less fertile with every weed choking its flourishing plants.
But amidst this phenomena of Nazi laden plots, great stories are still told, and provide new glances into those bleak times of hate, heroics, and humanity (Band of Brothers, Dunkirk, Unbroken, The Imitation Game etc…).
Recently, there has also been a vein of WWII storytelling that provides good insight into the impact of the war on children in Germany, taking cues from the sentimental The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, came books like The Book Thief and All the Light We Cannot See and now, in film form, Jojo Rabbit.
I loved The Book Thief and thought All the Light We Cannot See was strong, but they both set the very obvious, bleak tone to narrate the lives of these affected children. And they did a great job. So great it felt like we were kind of done with the whole thing.
But wait, what is this?… hurtling through the forest at top speed, jumping and screaming and trailed by his imaginary Fuhrer friend, Jojo Rabbit charges on to the scene. And the boy who couldn’t even kill a bunny did something a bit different with the archetype that was going to get stale quickly. Jojo Rabbit told the story a different way. A way both comical and deeply sinister.
Waititi was hilarious as Hitler, playing hypeman to Jojo’s thoughts, playing ready companion to Jojo’s every whim. And I suppose that could easily be misconstrued as some Tarantino-esque reconstruction of history to try and minimize Hitler.
But I don’t see it that way, because, not to be too pedantic, it was not actually Hitler, it was a small Nazi-child’s imagining of Hitler. And in this boy’s mind, Hitler was supportive, and caring, and friendly and up-for-a-good-time and everything a young boy could want in a friend. Did that create humor? Hell yeah. But after thinking about that scenario for two seconds, any viewer will see how dark that commentary actually is.
Waititi creates a much more real rendition of the impact of the Nazi regime on youth than the books and movies about very self-aware, empathetic, and adult children in other similar stories. Those stories aren’t bad, or even worse, but after watching Jojo Rabbit, I have a hard time granting those young and impressionable children the meta-cognition that we as watchers and readers grant them. Were some children like that?… I’m sure. But the Nazi youth were a thing, and I imagine a lot more kids were like Jojo, gung-ho, run through the woods with my Nazi-knife hoping to bring honor to the Fuhrer (the best leader…and maybe even friend… a boy could ask for) by fighting for the Reich and killing dirty, nasty Jews. That’s the sinister and shitty nature of what the Nazi’s did to their youth, they didn’t deny childhood, they commandeered it.
So it makes sense that Jojo would have a childish image of Hitler, and be goofy at Nazi youth camp, and that he would cast a rosy glow on the slow and inevitable decline of the Reich as it falls apart around him, that it would take the heaviest of hands to show him that the war was not good, that Jews were not horned monsters with mind powers, and that Hitler wasn’t a friend but a bad guy.
And I think the dissonance between a WWII story, which we expect to be sad, somber, and gloomy, and the goofy tone of Jojo Rabbit is what turns some people off to the film. But this very dissonance is what happened in the mind of a child like Jojo. It’s off putting and uncouth, it frustrates his own mother, and makes his Jewish friend mock him for his lack of awareness, but it felt real, and true, and new. And I liked that.
Sure, the movie lost its way in the second half, but any movie that has the confidence to have us sit through 12 “Heil Hitlers” in a row, for no reason other than to show the absurdity of the greeting, has me firmly in their corner.
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