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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

November 13, 2019

‘Jojo Rabbit’: Surprisingly Sweet

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Jojo Rabbit is a tough one for me. Though directed by Taika Waititi, who most recently lent his talents to Thor: Ragnarok, it could not be further from a Marvel movie (which are kind of my bread and butter). To quickly summarize: Jojo Betzler, a 10-year-old boy who still talks to his imaginary friend, falls in love with a girl several years his senior. Oh, and Jojo Betzler is a Nazi.

The reaction to this film online has been mixed and on first pass it’s easy to see why. Nazis are not funny. The notion of “Nazi slapstick,” as some have put it, is as upsetting as it is seemingly paradoxical and I have seen quite a couple people I respect tremendously write this movie off as nothing more than that kind of farce. I disagree.

There are certainly funny scenes, but those scenes find humor in utter hierarchical ineptitude and Waititi’s Hitler (yes, he cast himself as Hitler) being pathetically insecure. Its script is unquestionably witty, but Jojo Rabbit’s brief forays into absurdist slapstick and satirical revisionism are hardly its focus. Its upbeat mood is merely a product of its chosen perspective.

This movie doesn’t take on the somber tone of a Schindler’s List because we watch it unfold from the viewpoint of a child. Jojo’s initial jocular disposition towards the Hitler Youth is no endorsement from the film’s creators of that organization’s actions but rather a historical reality. The film places its titular character in a situation the audience knows to be morally abhorrent so that we can watch him grow out of it.

The film opens on a young boy practicing his “Heil Hitler’s” then shows him struggling to rationalize his enthusiasm for the only community he has ever known with the fact that the Jewish girl his mom has been hiding in the attic does not have horns growing out of the top of her head. Jojo Rabbit is a character study that proves unexpectedly beautiful.

Watching this movie felt like getting to know someone. To watch Jojo become capable of moral reasoning more coherent than that of his comically bastardized superiors solely because he fell in love is downright captivating. By the closing act of the film, I was so thoroughly invested in his simply making it through to the end that I couldn’t get my heart out of my throat until long after the theater lights came up. 

In thinking about why this film affected me so deeply I kept coming back to the same question: Who, in all of history, would be the least likely to discover love?  It might well be Jojo Betzler, a 10-year-old in mid-1940’s Nazi Germany whose imaginary friend is quite literally Adolf Hitler.

It doesn’t matter that his love is for someone prohibitively older than himself. It doesn’t matter that his love is for someone with whom his entire society is diametrically opposed, and it doesn’t matter that his world is caving in on itself. Jojo felt those butterflies in his stomach and that was that – you can’t run from love.

The film repeatedly cites the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, a Bohemian-Austrian poet who wrote the following: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going.”

Just keep going. That’s the message here, not that Nazis are funny or that children are incapable of emotional complexity but that in the darkest of nights all we can do is to do what we can. Come what may but love conquers all.

If nothing else, Jojo Rabbit was a surprising bit of escapism for me. Waititi and an excellent cast have turned a hopelessly bleak world into one of the sweeter films I’ve seen this year. This one is worth the watch.

Nick Smith is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nks53@cornell.edu.