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November 24, 2019

‘Jojo Rabbit:’ Too Sweet for Its Own Good

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I normally don’t enter spaces actively conscious of my identity as a grandchild of a Holocaust survivor. However, I was highly aware of my Judaism as I nervously entered the theater to see Jojo Rabbit. I felt I had a special responsibility to evaluate the movie to ensure that Nazism was not made light of in a way that would make people forget its horrors. I was hesitant to attend a comedy about Nazis in an era where fewer and fewer people actually understand the nature of the Holocaust. Despite the fact that director Taika Watiti identifies as a Jew, I still worried about his sensitivity in making a comedy about Nazis.

I’m not sure that this is something that my colleague Nick Smith ’20 considers enough in his review of Jojo Rabbit. Smith was right in that the film is “surprisingly sweet” in showing love and morality develop within the 10-year-old Nazi Jojo, but the film also made me sweat.

Jojo Rabbit stands in an uncomfortable place between a comedy and a drama. The film is moralizing, but it is also packed with dark humor. It is not the “satirical revisionism” I take issue with, but the film’s disjunctive tone that results from Watiti biting off more than he could chew.

The opening titles of the film included cheerful and real footage of the mass public support of Hitler’s regime. If the regime were not associated with one of the worst genocides in human history, I would have thought that the opening cleverly primes the audience for the context in which Jojo is immersed in. The audience could gain more sympathy for the protagonist and thus understand his consciousness.

Instead of inspiring sympathy, the crowds reminded me of the abhorrent history of Jojo’s world. I felt that in a time where neo-Nazism is on the rise, there should be a good reason for propagating Nazi imagery.

The first half of Jojo Rabbit is characterized by the lively characters that Watiti brilliantly presents us. I actually loved how the characters showed the ridiculous nature of fascism. Sam Rockwell shines as the closeted, blunt, incapable officer in charge of the child Nazis-in-training troop. Rebel Wilson constantly tickled my funny bone as an insane secretary. Waititi’s dark humor as Jojo’s imagined Hitler was truly entertaining and did shed light on how children perceive the world. This first half of the movie was similar to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, where characters become more colorful due to their positions in the eyes of child protagonists. Although I agree with Smith that the film’s “upbeat mood is merely a product of its chosen perspective,” when the film takes a more serious turn in its second half, the aforementioned comedy becomes almost offensive.

Jojo’s mother is hung for conspiring against the German government. Scarlett Johansson’s joyful portrayal of the Inglourious Basterds-like rebel contributed to the lightness of the film’s first half. The death of his mother signifies an end to Jojo’s childish perceptions of Hitler, and he begins to understand that his friendly-Hitler doesn’t exist. Changes in the personality or presence of imaginary Hitler is how Watiti shows Jojo’s moral development. The death of Jojo’s mother is extremely emotional with what felt like minutes of shots of Jojo clinging to her feet hanging from the gallows. It therefore felt wrong when the film continued its jaunty humor.

When the German city is attacked by Americans, Rebel Wilson’s character sends a child out with a grenade telling him to run at the Nazis. This dark humor elicited a hearty laugh from the audience, but moments later the film becomes somber again with a slow-motion war sequence. Shots of dead elderly women and civilians seemed indicative of Watiti’s desire to ground the audience in historical fact once more, but moments later was another lighthearted moment. This created a flip-flop effect.

By the end of the movie, I felt a bit manipulated into liking the movie. I thought the fast-paced  comedy was incredibly smart and fun, but I was also disappointed with its proximity to tragedy. I appreciated the moral narrative of resistance to oppression, but I felt that the narrative was forced. The film wants to spread a message of love in the face of hatred, but the moral message is buried too much in the movie’s lightheartedness.

The film was like two different short films were chopped up and Frankensteined together. I was unsettled. Does my discomfort mean that the film was bad? I don’t think so. But it may mean that the film’s impact should be considered.

Is belittling Nazis through humanizing them with humor actually helpful in combating hatred? Is now a good time to approach Hitler’s fascism from the viewpoint of a child? How might neo-Nazis react to the film, or even people who are just mildly anti-Semitic? Does a director’s intention matter as much as the possible consequences of a film? Is it okay to make comedies concerning the Rwandan genocide or American slavery?

I’m not sure it’s possible to answer these questions will full certainty, but this movie should definitely inspire debate. Leaving the movie theater, I certainly had more on my mind than the film’s sweetness.

Emma Plowe is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at edp52@cornell.edu.