Review: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Sings About Love in the Darkest of Times
(The review contains spoilers)
Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final
Rainer Maria Rilke
As the end credits of Taika Waititi’s Oscar-nominated film Jojo Rabbit roll, what hits hard is the beauty of love in the reign of terror. Based on Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies, Jojo takes us back to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Set during the Third Reich when the World War II is about to end, this ‘hipster’ Nazi satire opens with a cheekiness, as The Beatles’ German-language version of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ plays over documentary clips of Germans raising their hands in the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute.
Then we are introduced to a tousled-haired lanky 10-year-old boy Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), standing in front of the mirror and trying to perfect ‘Heil Hitler’ in the shrill pitch that is expected of ‘loyal’ Germans. Johannes or Jojo is an ardent follower of the Nazi ideals that are being hammered into his head in the Hitler Youth camp. Sam Rockwell, the squad leader, and Rebel Wilson, his assistant, are excellently fleshed out caricatures who confidently echo the words of their ‘Great Dictator’.
The youth camp ‘teaches’ kids to burn books, learn techniques of hacking the devilish Jews and take pride in the fact that Germans are of Aryan descent, therefore the superior race.
As most children, Jojo has an imaginary friend - none other than the Fuhrer himself. But his Hitler (played by Waititi) is a goof-head version of the anarchist, who derives great pleasure in speaking in anachronisms (“That was intense!” “I’m stressed out!” “Correctamundo!” “That was a complete bust!”). With Jojo’s father away in the war, Hitler becomes a godfather to this kid.
Jojo’s faith in genocide makes him savour the delusion that its no big deal to kill. However, he is dismissed as a sissy when he refuses to strangle a rabbit in front of his peers, thus earning the name Jojo Rabbit. To add to his woes, he is tossed out of the youth camp after he blows up a grenade on his face, scarring him physically and mentally.
Relegated to menial duties like handing out pamphlets, Jojo’s world turns upside down when he discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), a German civilian praying for the death of Hitler, has hidden a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in his dead sister’s room. Thus begins a bond between the duo that transcends hate and fear.
Jojo starts off by plotting numerous ways in which to hand over the ‘enemy’ or kill her, but she is far smarter than he imagined. He then strikes a deal with her – Jojo wants to write a pathbreaking book, an expose on “Brussle sprout-smelling” Jews, who in his imagination are creatures with horns that can penetrate the minds of Germans, and he demands Elsa’s help with the masterpiece.
Elsa plays along, and sketches Jojo’s head when asked to paint a Jew. “We live there,” she tells the stunned kid, narrating a tale of how Jews used to live in caves and clung to the ceilings of houses. Elsa echoes all that Jojo has been taught about the vile and barbaric Other, and their conversations have a striking resemblance to the India of today.
Waititi aka Hitler pops up from time to time to remind Jojo not to deviate from his ‘mission’. On the other hand, Rosie paints bright dreams for Elsa in the dark closet the latter has learnt to call home.
In a narrative laced with humour, we encounter a mother struggling to turn her child around, a teenager waiting for that one dance of freedom and a child so blinded by fanaticism that when he finally understands the real meaning of Nazism, his only source of support is brutally snatched away. And Germany is a metaphor of the dangerous idea that indoctrinators use to toy with the innocence of the youth.
Dance has been used as the most powerful weapon to break from the shackles of anarchy. Rosie breaks into a dance when she remembers her husband and when her eyes light up while speaking about love to her son in a country torn by war. The curtains, too, draw with a final dance. Isn’t that what Wladyslaw did in The Pianist, cling to music to heal him of the wounds of Holocaust?
Despite the humour falling flat at times, Jojo Rabbit scores on its portrayal of relationships and performances. The mother-child duo is a treat to watch. Rosie sends her son to the Hitler camp but schools him to be “human.” She smiles in the face of adversity, downs bottles of wine because she has to save a portion of the frugal meal for Elsa and is optimistic that her country and her son will see the light at the end of the tunnel. Scarlett Johansson carries Rosie on her shoulders with remarkable poise, confidence and positivity.
Waititi is flawless as the cartoonish Hitler. Who could have thought that this dictator, while revelling in public executions, can also swing to the beats? Thomasin McKenzie has the strongest presence and she is compelling as Elsa. Elsa is brave yet terrified. Her eyes betray the sadness of thousands of Jews who are thrown into trains to never return from their ‘destinations.’ “You look a tiger in the eye. And trust without fear,” Rosie tells her, and we wonder whether Elsa met her lovers and ran away to Morocco.
The director’s skill also lies in utilising the supporting cast to the fullest. Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf, in his small but significant role, shows us that it isn’t difficult to show some empathy. Not to forget Yorki (Archie Yates), Jojo’s ‘non-imaginary’ second best friend. The chubby kid sends us into splits every time he comes on screen.
Charlie Chaplin turned Hitler into a figure of ridicule in The Great Dictator. Quentin Tarantino pointed a finger at the Nazis with jaunty glee in Inglourious Bastards. And Waititi takes a leaf out of the darkest chapters of human history to weave a tale of love, hope and redemption. After all, graphic images of flying bullets and bloodied bodies need not be the only reminder of the horrors of war. Sometimes, it takes a few punchlines to tear our hearts into a hundred pieces.
(Make sure you don't miss fresh news updates from us. Click here to stay updated )