Cinematic Releases: The Beauty and the Terror: Jojo Rabbit (2019) - Reviewed

“Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

--Rainer Maria Rilke

The satirical tone of Taika Waititi's black comedy Jojo Rabbit (2019) will definitely be divisive, partly because Waititi's affinity for whimsy might not seem pointed enough for some people. This film strikes a precarious balance between humor and tragedy, shifting tones abruptly like a car trying to change lanes during rush hour, and sometimes these tone shifts don't quite work. That being said, in the emotional center of Jojo Rabbit there is a core of love and light that cannot be denied, and it is Waititi shouting to the world, "It's never too late for compassion!" and as messy as this film can get at times, this idea is always shining through.

This film follows a young German boy named Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) who is part of the Hitler Youth movement during World War II. He idolizes Adolph Hitler immensely to the point where he has a version of him as a imaginary friend only he can see. Faux-Hitler is played by Waititi and he portrays him as a self-absorbed buffoonish character who gives Jojo advice when he encounters problems. The fictional version of Hitler is a visual representation of Jojo's nationalism and his adherence to the Nazi ideology that is being taught to him. As the film progresses, his relationship to Faux-Hitler changes as well, mirroring his disillusion with Nazism.

Because the film is from a child's point of view, ideas are simplified and confined to his worldview. The main conflict of the film is that Jojo discovers a Jewish girl named Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie) has been hiding in his home. He is torn between his perceived duty to Germany to report her to the Gestapo and his growing affection for her as a person. He has been taught that Jewish people are less than human, monsters even, but he discovers that everything he has been told is a lie through his interactions with Elsa. Elsa's character could have used a bit more depth, as she ends up becoming more of a teaching moment for Jojo than having her own story, but the back-and-forth between her and Jojo and the complex power dynamics at play make it compelling. McKenzie does a wonderful job giving Elsa strength and determination.

Waititi's quirky humor is going to be love or hate with most people, and this version of WWII feels stylized, almost like a children's book. It doesn't seem he was going for historical accuracy as much as he was using this backdrop as an allegory, and that might not sit well with some viewers. Though the tone can get quite dark (bring some tissues), it always snaps back to the humor though Waititi deftly manages to avoid undercutting the more emotional moments, letting them play out fully for maximum impact.

Jojo Rabbit is not trying to make the case that Nazism was nuanced, more that hate is taught to children who internalize it and become hateful adults. Jojo is only ten in the film and he is still malleable enough to change his ways before they become too ingrained. As is quoted in the film "No feeling is final." and that is an important lesson that anyone can take away from this story.

--Michelle Kisner