Last Thursday, I was tasked with seeing Taika Waititi's (Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) latest film Jojo Rabbit, at the Terrace. Along with the advance screening presented by The Charleston Jewish Community Center (JCC) Filmfest, there was a discussion led by Ron Small, founder of the Holocaust Education Film Foundation and president of Anchor Media Group. It was one of my favorite movie experiences this year but not because of the film itself.
It's a small miracle this film got made in this day and age. As of this writing, reviews for the film were divided, with some heralding its genius and others troubled by the approach to the material. Based, in story at least, on Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, the film follows Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a lonely German boy with Hitler youth aspirations and an imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi). When not in cutesy moments with imaginary Der Fuhrer, he's taking part in pointless war exercises with his nerdy buddy Yorki (Archie Yates), led by Nazi buffoons like Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson).
The opening credits blare a German version of The Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" while footage of Jojo's wannabe Nazi exploits are interspersed with footage from what I think was Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. We soon meet Jojo's mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who seemingly indulges her son's blind adoration. Things change when he realizes mom is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic of their home. Naturally, Jojo finds himself at odds with the "club" he wants to join and his mother's secret opposition of the Nazi regime.
At the packed screening, many people laughed. As the credits rolled, I saw one person wiping tears. I heard one person say, "I liked it but I'm not sure about the timing for a movie like that." I saw one person nod in disapproval. I told someone who enjoyed it that I felt conflicted by it, admiring the intent more than the execution. I wasn't outraged or offended by what I saw, but I can see why some would feel that way.
- Courtesy Fox Searchlight
I stayed behind to hear the post-film discussion. As the credits ended, JCC coordinator, Sandra Brett, introduced Small to the remaining audience members. He opened things up by asking what we thought the film's overall point was. The approximately 30 folks that stayed behind gave their take on the film and the use of humor in a horrific backdrop. I wish there was a recording of the conversation because I'm not sure I can properly illustrate the differing perspectives I heard.
One person voiced concern over children seeing the film while a father and daughter said they loved the film. A College of Charleston student voiced her appreciation for the film defanging Hitler while pondering its overall message. Another person said he thought it couldn't touch other explorations like Mel Brooks' The Producers and Roberto Benigni's similarly themed Life Is Beautiful. Small and Brett mentioned a couple other documentaries that piqued my interest. One person felt some viewers missed the film's point while another was offended by the overall handling of an atrocity while yet another person loved the mixture of humor and heartbreak. This was my favorite part of the night.
- Kevin Young
I hope many more people see it during its run in theaters. I loved some of the performances in the film, Johansson's being my favorite. Some of the quirkiness of the characters and scenes worked for me. The cinematography is vibrant and alive, reminding me of the wide-eyed innocence of Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom.
The many tonal shifts, particularly in the final third, felt clunky. One minute it felt like Springtime for Hitler-influenced farce, the next minute it felt like a super-serious Academy Awards moment. Waititi's hand is deft but the balancing act didn't always work for me. It's almost unfair but my nitpick is that the film has been pushed as a "No-Hate Satire", maybe "No-Hate Comedy."
When I think of satire I think of films like Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, Spike Lee's Bamboozled and more recently, Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin. There's a cold matter-of-factness and an anxious energy to those outrageous films that I was expecting in Jojo Rabbit. It's very possible that I just have a stick up my ass (please note the author photo above). Regardless, I admire Waititi's testicular fortitude and am happy the film is finding an enthusiastic audience and generating a healthy dialogue. I'd take a conflicted reaction to a noble effort like Jojo Rabbit over a lazy nostalgia trip like Terminator: Dark Fate any day.
Jojo Rabbit — Rated PG-13. Directed by Taika Waititi. Starring Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Thomasin McKenzie, Rebel Wilson, and Roman Griffin Davis.