The Rainer Maria Rilke quote which appears just before the end credits is a great way to sum up the tone of Jojo Rabbit. In the final days of World War II (I know, this is my second WW centered Oscar movie review in a row) Jojo Betzler (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old boy, with a furvert obsession with Adolf Hitler, joins the Hitler Youth. His imaginary friend is the Fuhrer himself (played with absurd perfection by Taika Waititi). After an injury involving a grenade and a misguided attempt to seem brave, Jojo becomes an errand boy for Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell).
One day he discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) inside the walls of the house. Convinced he and his mother will be punished if he turns Elsa in, Jojo decides to “interrogate” her. He figures if he can learn more about the evils of Jewish people, he can write a book and get into Hitler’s good favor.
At first, Elsa cleverly plays along with Jojo’s prejudice, giving him ridiculously false information. Slowly, the two begin to bond and Elsa tells Jojo more about her family and fiancé. Helped along by his mother, a member of the resistance, Jojo begins to feel conflicted with the imaginary fascist in his head.
Jojo Rabbit is a comedy, but writer/director Waititi knows when to pull back and let the heart-warming, heart-breaking, and horrifying moments take over the laughs. He also wisely pulls back on imaginary Hitler after the weekend at the youth camp. While he does pop up to offer terrible advice to Jojo, his presence is only used to further the incongruity of fanaticism.
Waititi delights in taking the piss out of Nazism and the smallminded who flow the flawed logic without question. With the current rise of radical nationalism in both the U.S. and the U.K., it is cathartic to laugh at these people. But Jojo Rabbit takes their zealotry seriously. The film doesn’t shy away from the dangers of these Nazis. One of the best scenes in the film is when Jojo’s house is searched by the SS. There are great jokes and funny moments including a minute-long gag where “Heil Hitler” is uttered 31 times in the most ridiculous way. But the tension never alleviates, just builds to the point where you are ready to throw up.
All of the actors are great. Johansson as Rosie does a beautiful job in being the angel on Jojo’s shoulder. Another newcomer, Archie Yates steals every scene he is in as Jojo’s best friend, Yorki. Even Rebel Wilson as the compulsively lying Fraulein Rahm is quite delightful. But this movie belongs to Davis and McKenzie. They are delightful together as their characters engage in a battle of wits and wills throughout. McKenzie really shines as she balances Elsa’s toughness with her vulnerability. She makes you believe that if she can just find the right words, show him love and acceptance, she can save young Jojo from his worst instincts.
And that is really the message of Jojo Rabbit, love is the only way to defeat hate. Allowing yourself to feel everything, to experience the best and worst of life, is the only way we save ourselves from the trap of fanaticism.
Check out our other Best Picture Nominee reviews. We reviewed Joker, The Irishman, and 1917.
The Nerdling was born in the majestic land known as Texas and currently resides there after several years of journeying through Middle Earth in a failed attempt to steal the one Ring from that annoying hobbit, serving the Galactic Empire for a time, and then a short stint as a crew member on the Serenity. Since moving back to her homeland, Nerdling flirted with a hero reputation. Saving children from the dangers of adoring domineering, sparkly vampires (champions with souls are the only vampires worth loving) and teaching normals the value of nerdom, all while rooting for her beloved Dallas Stars. Then came the Sokovia Accords and her short spell of saving others came to an end. With Darth Vader’s reputation rightfully returning to badass status, Nerdling is making her way back to the Empire. They do have cookies, you know. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.