past week I went to Knoxville’s resident arthouse theater, Regal Downtown West, to see “JoJo Rabbit” and I was not disappointed. As a fan of director Taika Waititi, WWII history and comedy in general, I had been looking forward to this movie since I first heard about it months ago.
For those who don’t know, “JoJo Rabbit” is set in the last year of Nazi Germany. It follows a ten-year-old fanatical Nazi as he makes his way through life with his imaginary friend, Der Führer himself. But his life is shockingly interrupted when he discovers that his mother is harboring a Jew in their attic. That was pretty much all I knew about the movie before I saw it, but the execution of the film makes it so much more. So, for today I want to give you a review of the film in two parts: first, a spoiler-free technical review of the movie and then a more open interpretation of the film as a whole (with some minor spoilers).
This film earned a lot of praise from me on a technical level. No, it was not filmed in all-natural light, nor was it filmed in a long continuous shot, but the camera work was simple, straightforward and to the point. Set design and scene blocking were also great: despite this being a slower paced melo-dramedy, every scene feels like it’s moving, and I never once felt bored watching this film.
This film also had a fantastic cast, with Scarlett Johansson charismatically playing JoJo’s mother and Sam Rockwell and Alfie Allen playing the goofy disillusioned Nazi Officers. However, the real standout of the film was the actor who played JoJo himself, Roman Griffin Davis. Normally child actors can be a kiss of death for a film like this, but JoJo was so believable and relatable as a character that it boggles the mind. Not only because the character is being played by a ten-year-old but because the character itself is so absurd that going into this film you could never imagine how much you would end up rooting for him.
This film is not without its flaws however. Whether it was because Waititi had a little too much fun playing the character or simply to give the film a broader appeal, the first act of the film is totally oversaturated with the imaginary Hitler character. While admittedly very funny at times, there are far too many scenes that feature Hitler for seemingly no reason. The character stuff in this film is great, but too often are you distracted from real characters by Waititi’s caricature. Thankfully, the film moves past this towards the second half when the Hitler character becomes a sort of metaphor for JoJo’s Nazi identity.
Another criticism I have for the film is the very start of JoJo’s relationship with Elsa. When JoJo first discovers the Jewish fugitive in his attic, she is positively vicious to him. Obviously, her behavior is realistically understandable given her situation, but in the context of the movie it’s extremely jarring. JoJo is our main character—we like him, and we root for him. Then, all of a sudden, this much older character begins to torment him. As I was watching the scenes of this happening, I was really confused. I wasn’t sure how the movie wanted me to feel when I saw it. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to feel either. I’m not quite sure whether this part of the film was an oversight or brilliant, but there you go. Overall, the film was fantastic, and I highly recommend it.
Now let’s move into spoilers. I say spoilers, but the plot of this movie is really quite predictable, with much greater emphasis being placed on character development, relationships and humor over narrative. JoJo finds the Jewish girl in his wall but cannot tell his mother or the authorities for fear that she will “cut off his little Nazi head.” Instead, our heroic little fascist decides to interview her regularly so that he can write a book about Jews and become best friends with Hitler. In the process of interviewing her however, he develops a boyish crush on her, causing him to compromise his Nazi identity, which is the source of a great deal of stress to him.
This plays out as the second world war is coming to an end, with JoJo’s eventual rejection of fascism happening shortly after Hitler’s suicide. The message of the film is summed up nicely in one line: “you’re not a Nazi JoJo. You’re just a little boy who likes swastikas and wants to be part of a club.” Throughout the entire movie JoJo maintains a fanatical devotion to being a Nazi, but at the same time behaves like a normal and even kind child. The film deals with what it means to be free, to overcome ignorance and to love. It’s subtle, obvious and hilarious (especially if you speak any German or know the history). I cannot recommend it enough.
Stephen Strong is a senior majoring in finance and international business. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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