JoJo Rabbit asks, what if Lucien Lacombe could have been reached when he was 10?
I’ve seldom been more pleased to find that a movie ad has misrepresented the product as I was about Jojo Rabbit. Well, the ad didn’t entirely misrepresent it, since the comical Nazis in the ad are certainly in the movie. But there is much more to the movie than it suggests, and there’s much more to that ostensibly outrageous device, too.
The Nazis in Jojo Rabbit are preparing for their last desperate defense of Berlin, but ten-year-old Jojo doesn’t see that; to him, the Hitler Youth trainers, soldiers, and Party functionaries are wonderfully gung-ho, dashing and fun — showing off shooting tricks, making a glorious bonfire of books, being grandiose and enthusiastic in all the ways kids like. (The credits contain a clever comparison to Beatlemania.)
Most of all they’re giving him something to believe in — namely Adolf Hitler, whom Jojo’s mind transforms into a friendly, understanding, and supportive sprite who only he can see, who visits him and bucks him up with inspirational messages and dazzling stories from his exciting, adventuresome life as Fuhrer and consoles him when he’s sad — which is often, as Jojo’s father is away at the front (or possibly and unfortunately not) and his mother, though loving and even cheerful, is not supportive of his dreams of Nazi glory.
Complicating matters is [mild spoiler] a young Jewish woman, Elsa, whom Jojo’s mother is hiding upstairs. At first Jojo is troubled by the necessity of backing his mother’s play and especially the insolence of the girl herself who simply won’t conform to his diligently memorized bigotry. Where are her horns? Why can’t he overpower her physically and intellectually? And why does he begin to care what becomes of her?
An unremarked excellence of Jojo Rabbit is the boy’s resistance to the lessons he’s being given, which are only obvious to us because we’re not a troubled child growing up under the Third Reich. Jojo is stubbornly, childishly creative about defending his fantasies — he tells his best friend Yorki, for example, that he can’t be his best friend because his best friend is the Fuhrer — which draws us into rooting for him to please grow up enough to get the message before it’s too late. And as his sunny fantasy world starts to darken under the encroaching shadows of reality, it’s not a sure thing that he will.
“You’re not a Nazi,” Elsa and his mother repeatedly tell Jojo — and they’re right in a few ways. For one thing he’s no good at it. (His inability to kill a rabbit with his bare hands earns him his nickname from teenage Nazis, who taunt him with it as they head off to the front; when, later, an incomplete number of them come back dazed and beaten in dirty uniforms, Jojo’s mother calls out to them, “Welcome home, boys. Go kiss your mothers.”) But being a Nazi is all Jojo’s got.
I don’t think I'm spoiling too much when I tell you that love, in a few forms, pulls Jojo out of it. But — and I think this is the key to the movie — love only has a chance to reach him because he’s a boy still living, then fighting, in the world of his imagination. And that’s why we have the goofy Hitler, the hapless and over-the-top Nazis, the physical disasters that are funny because they come out alright but you know might not have. It’s not just a Springtime for Hitler pastiche, as Mel Brooks seemed to acknowledge when he publicly praised the film.
For Jojo, being a Nazi is playtime. It’s also playtime for the adults who surround him. (The damaged, louche, and ultimately admirable youth camp leader Captain Klenzendorf — who, as played by Sam Rockwell, is pretty bad at being a Nazi himself — tells Jojo about an absurd, fabulous uniform he’s designed for the day when he returns to battle, and when the Allies start shelling their neighborhood Jojo finds Klenzendorf wearing it; the look he gives Jojo at that moment is mysterious in the very best way.) But for the grown-ups, the game is insane and deadly. Jojo is not so far gone that he can kill — though in one horrible moment he looks as if he might be — and that’s the awful brink from which he is pulled back. Though the ending is upbeat, the message is serious: the war against the Nazis, and their spiritual heirs that surround us, has to be won in the heart when it’s young and tender or all is lost.
This Taika Waititi guy is new to me and pretty clearly a genius. His performance as the Hitler djinn is brilliant, too — cuddly enough to be Jojo’s creation, but still Hitler and therefore still a menace. The kid, Roman Griffin Davis, is wonderfully serious and self-possessed, which makes his growing uncertainties all the more poignant. (Kudos also to Archie Yates as Yorki — their joy in finding one another alive at the end of the war reminded me of a line from Motorhead’s “1918” about two boy soldiers who didn’t make it: “Then I fell by his side, and that's how we died/Clinging like kids to each other.”) Thomasin McKenzie’s Elsa is a perfect foil for Jojo: tough, scared of death but not of her feelings, or his. And as Jojo’s mother Scarlett Johansson quietly carries a lot of freight; as an intelligent dissenter, she has her own well-informed feelings about the global cataclysm, independent of her feelings for her son — which is rare in war-mother roles and cool to see. But she’s also a mother who has to save her boy. This she does coolly and shrewdly, knowing he can’t just be swept to safety by the force of her love — yet it’s never in question that she loves him. I’ve liked her acting since Ghost World, but this was the first time she actually made me cry.