December 1, 2019 – A coming-of-age love story between a Nazi and a Jew in Germany during World War II with an imaginary Adolph Hitler character for comic relief is both funny and tragic, highlighting the power of love, as well as the absurdities of war and fanaticism.
Directed by Taika Waititi (“Thor Ragnarok”) this whimsical, dramatic film reminded me of some of Wes Anderson's films, like “Isle of Dogs” or “The Grand Budapest Hotel” but with a harder dramatic edge. Jojo Betzler (played by Roman Griffin Davis) is a proud member of the Hitler Youth and he dreams of going to war for Germany (this story is set late in the war) but his heart is not really in it when it comes to killing.
At a Hitler Youth Camp, he is ordered to kill a rabbit to prove his mettle. Instead, he tries to set the rabbit free. Mocked by the other children, he earns the nickname Jojo Rabbit. Whenever he waivers in his beliefs, he turns to his imaginary friend, Adolph (played by the director, Taika Waititi) who encourages him to reckless action involving a hand grenade. He ends up with a scarred face and a gimpy leg.
His shame grows even deeper, when he discovers that his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson of “Ghost in the Shell”) is a member of the German resistance and is opposed to Hitler and the war. Not only that, but she is hiding a Jew, Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie of “Leave No Trace”) in their attic. Elsa was a friend of Jojo's late sister. Jojo wants to turn her in to the authorities, but Elsa threatens to expose him and his mother as traitors if he does. Elsa is older, bigger, stronger, and much smarter than Jojo.
Elsa and Jojo work out a peace treaty of sorts. Both agree not to tell Jojo's mother that Jojo knows about Elsa hiding in the house. Jojo's mother is sure that Jojo will not be able to keep that secret, and Elsa would have to be moved to another home. Jojo does not want Elsa to leave, and gradually, he falls in love with her. But this is war, and enemy troops are about to invade the city. The SS and Gestapo are suspicious of Jojo and his mother. Dark forces close in on Jojo's world.
Among the interesting characters in the film are Jojo's friend, Yorki (Archie Yates) and Jojo's Hitler Youth boss, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell of “Vice”). Klenzendorf is a willing soldier, but doesn't share the racist views being pushed by the Nazis. He recognizes that Jojo is a good person and he goes to heroic lengths to help him. Jojo's mother, Rosie, is another great character, upbeat, positive and fiercely moral. The actors in this film all give fine performances.
I can see where some people would love this mix of comedy and drama. It works, but the sudden contrast between whimsical romantic comedy and the horrors of war can sometimes be jarring. As far as the comedy goes, it is very funny, Waititi has a gift for absurdist comedy (he co-wrote the screenplay with Christine Leunens). The fantasy scenes where Jojo's imaginary Adolph appears also seem a bit intrusive at times, but the imaginary Hitler is also funny.
As you can tell, I am a bit conflicted about the oil-and-water mix of emotions this movie evoked, but this is definitely a good movie. One of the year's best? I'm not so sure. This film rates a B.
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