“We have to dance to show God we are grateful for being alive.”
The power of satire, when done fearlessly, unapologetically, and with a sense of artistic duty laid out through the centuries by such masters as Lucien, Swift, Twain, Bruce, Newman and Brooks is a thing of fierce beauty. Eviscerating its subject may be its aim, but it absolutely must entertain, to effectively spread its message. This is Jojo Rabbit, a brilliant film by writer/director Taika Waititi that skewers the black heart of hatred oft-times masked as patriotism, fascism posing as loyalty, and a growing fervor of racism that currently underlines the climate of European, Middle Eastern and even American politics today. And, as all great satire, it is damned funny and chillingly poignant.
Though it is set in 1940s Berlin, the film speaks volumes to its current generation about how the absurdities of human nature can and will lay waste to civilization by the systemic perpetuation of ignorance and fear.
Waititi, a self-described Polynesian Jew, born and raised in New Zealand, was inspired to embark on the project by learning with a fair amount of disgust and alarm that sixty-six percent of millennials and forty-one percent of adults have not heard of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp that took over one million lives from 1940 to 1945, and only twenty-one percent of young people could accurately describe the Holocaust, a red-tape, bureaucratic annihilation of over six-million European Jews. The memory of these horrors is fading with the passing of its survivors. We are one generation removed from no living witnesses, only words and pictures in books, statistics in place of souls. These are the ghosts at the heart of Jojo Rabbit, made clearer within its characters, plot and comedic conceit. Specters of our darkest impulses, as well as apparitions of our most cherished innate desires for hope and love.
The film’s imagery, awash in symbolism, is magnificent, its airtight script, featuring both dynamic and moving dialogue, offers nuggets that pay off every trail. Using modern music with subtext galore is one of its most underrated highlights. It is a film you must see, so there is no need for spoiler alerts here. I only aim to focus on the ghosts, both literally and figuratively, and the importance of their hazy visions, as Dickens once conjured for A Christmas Carol, to the comprehending of something so mind-numbingly horrific as World War II.
Every main character in Jojo Rabbit in one way or the other become ghosts, partly visible spirits of their true selves as trapped enemies in the final days of the Third Reich.
There is a child; eleven year-old, Johannes Betzler, aka Jojo, an innocently fanatical Hitler youth, the way kids that age might be about sports teams or rock bands (Waititi hits you right in the face in an opening montage of Jojo’s enthusiasms and Germany’s rabid excitement over National Socialism set to the German version – yes, the Beatles did this – of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, evoking Sixties images of Beatlemania, idolatry in pop culture).
Jojo will later confront a young woman; a Jewish girl named Elsa, hidden in his attic. Despite being physically shrouded, she is played with relentless vigor by nineteen year-old New Zealand actor, Thomasin McKenzie, simply because Waititi told her to not appear a victim and more like one of the terror teens in perhaps the finest satirical films of the eighties, Heathers.
Jojo’s mother, Rosie, portrayed with manic joy by Scarlett Johansson, hides her allegiance to the underground resistance as a strong German role model for her son. Jojo’s father, acting as a German soldier, is sabotaging the war effort, and his absence haunts the fractured family construct. Finally, in his place, is a damaged male figure; Sam Rockwell’s tragically comedic Captain Klenzendorf, a gay man, who fully understands the idiocy of his fate as a wounded officer for a cause that would surely hang him if exposed. His voice, his experiences, his eventual heroism will act as a spirit within Jojo.
Women. Minorities. Immigrants. Children. Revolutionaries. Homosexuals.
These are the identities that must be hidden, meant to exist as someone or something else beneath the penetrating glare of hatred. Each play both sides of this game as a matter of life and death. French-British actor, Roman Griffin Davis is first seen as Jojo as only half a face, and finally in full view, through a mirror; part Legion, part child – simultaneously seduced with mob mentality of a movement based on a myopic vision and an adorable, sensitive and fun-loving youth, who is asked to be an adult in a world where adults have lost their fucking minds and live in a city that crumbles beneath the terrible weight of madness. He regurgitates Nazi propaganda in scenes in which he cannot even tie his shoes, snap his fingers or wink.
The characters are introduced as gothic creatures – Rosie comes in from a blurry shot when her son is recovering from an injury, and later says of Jojo, “I know he is in there somewhere,” and having already lost a daughter, she worries that “her own remaining child is not just another ghost.” Elsa tells her, “Perhaps we’re all ghosts now, we just don’t know it.” Captain Klenzendorf, a grotesque visage of a drunken, beaten, erratically violent man, whose eye was taken in battle; appears as Homer’s Cyclopes, while also possessing a little of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter with an affinity to create a bizarre moral code out of the chaos all around him. When Elsa is discovered by Jojo, she appears as a Grendel figure, revealed at the climax of a building scene that lends homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho and Kubrick’s The Shining. At first the boy is sure the house is haunted, but Elsa eventually whispers to the shaken youth, “I am not a ghost, but something worse… ”
The initially tense and then tender scenes between Jojo and Elsa are both rich with innocent exchanges of pre-teen and teenage bluster and existential debates on racism, morals, love, respect, and art. “I am descended from those who wrestled angels and killed giants, we were chosen by God,” Elsa argues in one dramatic exchange, “You were chosen by a pathetic little man who can’t seem to grow a full moustache.” They possess all the beauty of the world barely sheltered from the carnage outside and try and hold onto that despite what has befallen them.
Then there is the visage of a starry-eyed boy’s idea of Adolf Hitler; pathetically goofy, over-the fucking-top, self-centered, irrational, manipulative and quick to unprompted rage. In other words, Hitler. Played by Waititi in the manner of Chaplin in The Great Dictator or Mel Brooks’ The Producers farcical caricature, he turns the true monster of the piece upside down. The architect of the great sin of humanity as a clown coming and going as Jojo’s imaginary friend. He instructs the boy to “be the rabbit” he must become to survive his insanity.
The final ghost of the piece is Berlin. It exists only in the tattered memory of a city, once the epicenter of European artistic, musical and radical thinking, dragged into the mire by thugs and despots. Germany’s mighty Blitzkrieg reduced to sending the elderly, women and children to slaughter, its incredible architectural achievements bombed into oblivion, as German culture had been under the crushing yoke of Nazism.
Jojo Rabbit is so much more than the ghosts of war and kinship, love and hate, but you have to see it, because I could go on and ruin the whole damn thing. I’ve already written too much. Know this: Satire rarely wins awards or is as beloved as other artistic genres. It is often misunderstood. But is as necessary as the ghosts in Waititi’s film. It must continue to remind of what has been and what is coming, because as quoted at the film’s finale:
“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and Terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke