Disclaimer: The following post contains spoilers from Jojo Rabbit.
When you take a traumatic historical incident and combine it with black comedy, you’re traversing on a very tight rope. Because viewing crisis through a comical lens demands a responsibility to not distort history and render people’s sufferings insignificant.
Nailing this complexity through nuanced storytelling is just one of the many reasons why Oscar-nominated comedy-drama Jojo Rabbit is a must-watch.
Based on Christine Leunens’s book Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit stars debutant Roman Griffin Davis in the titular role of Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, a Hitler Youth member. Jojo is a precocious ten-year-old, whose loyalty to Hitler and his army is bordering on fanaticism.
In fact, the only thing separating Jojo from hardened, Nazi supporters and members, is his naivety. Because ultimately, he is only 10.
Jojo’s imaginary friend is none other than Adolf Hitler (played by director Taika Waititi), who is ultimately a reflection of the thoughts he has been fed in Nazi-led Germany – that Jews are evil and vicious, and fighting for Germany is the greatest honor a young man can look forward to.
Jojo’s mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, is fighting to keep his innocence alive while also harboring a secret from him – that she is hiding a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house.
It is when Jojo unexpectedly encounters Elsa, that his dream world–which brands Jews as evil without having met them–comes crashing. Elsa is more mature, physically stronger, and not sporting horns.
This forces Jojo to reconsider everything he had ‘learned’ about the Jews from school and military camp. Adding insult to injury is Jojo’s supposed future as a cripple because of his disfigured face and slight limp – injuries he encountered as part of the Hitler Youth camp.
Yes, this film is as absurd and strange and comical as I’ve described above. And that’s perhaps one of the film’s greatest wins. Because the absurdity allows the viewers to understand how flawed, misguided, and widespread was the hate against Jews.
Through its satirical, almost farcical take on a subject like Jew persecution and hate-mongering of influential minds, the film manages to glaringly point out the extent of what happened under Nazi-Germany.
Today, we look at Nazi supporters as just that – Nazi supporters. But no one just started as a supporter of an evil regime hell-bent on wiping out an entire race.
The film brilliantly exposes how young minds were influenced and misinformed, at an age where they were still figuring out how to tie their shoelaces.
It also redefines what layered storytelling and perfect book adaptations look like. With a run time of only 108 minutes, it manages to build Jojo’s world, shatter it, and rebuild it to a world we all want to believe in.
And yet, at no point in the film, are you questioning the veracity of events. Perhaps because, before anything translates to slapstick comedy, Waititi introduces a stark reminder of the reality of Nazi Germany.
However, without a question, the film’s true win is debutant Roman Griffin Davis’ flawless performance as Jojo Rabbit. It is because of how natural he is in his role, that you accept his fanaticism, cry over his loss, laugh over his antics, and ultimately, root for him.
Davis never lets you forget that he is just a ten-year-old kid! One who is scared of killing a rabbit and being humiliated for it. A 10-yr-old who is experiencing love for the first time, but for the ‘enemy’.
A kid who hugs his best friend (an absolutely adorable Archie Yates as Yorki) but is also jealous of him. Someone who watches the fall of his idol, Hitler, even as he grapples with the loss of his entire family.
For such a young actor to convincingly portray a gamut of emotion is a testament to his strength as a performer and the director’s conviction.
And that brings us to one of the film’s salient wins – Waititi’s subtle take on subjects like toxic masculinity, illogical gender norms, society’s obsession with ‘labels’, the tragedy of war, and much more.
It’s a salient win because without throwing a spotlight on these issues, Waititi manages to highlight not only the unfairness of these practices but also the way they are perpetuated – by the very adults who are supposed to protect the youth and guide them.
Jojo Rabbit is a brilliant, powerful film that’s relevance in the current socio-political climate can not be stressed enough.
At a time when people are letting power-hungry leaders misguide them, a comical Hitler (a trope popularized by Bollywood but never with the same nuance) serves as a reminder that not everyone in leadership positions is working for the benefit of the people they are leading.
At a time when hate appears to take over humanity, Jojo Rabbit reminds us of mothers who risked it all to save a child, irrespective of her religion. It reminds us of officers who knowingly chose death to save an innocent life. It reminds us of how, when we reduce a person to a ‘tag’, words take on a far stronger role.
And ultimately, it reminds us, that sometimes humor allows us to learn from a tragedy in ways that leaves our heart heavy but our minds clear. That sometimes, it is okay to experience collective trauma with a smile on our face, even as our hearts beat in fear, like a scared rabbit.
Much like how Alice took us down the rabbit hole, and let absurdity teach us the value of things that are important.