Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Dir. Taika Waititi. Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson

From this Hollywood Reporter article listing some trivia about Jojo Rabbit after its Best Picture nomination, here’s Taika Waititi talking about what inspired him to make the picture:

I wanted to tell a story about kids witnessing the behavior of grown-ups—especially during times of conflict and war—because I’ve never seen films like that. I’ve never seen films where it was told really through a child’s lens.

It’s always a little discouraging when you read some quotes from a filmmaker who doesn’t appear to watch movies, y’know? I’m not even trying to be that guy who gets after people for not seeing every movie ever made, but like, Steven Spielberg made a movie about a kid who faces wartime head-on. The Diary of Anne Frank exists, and is hardly an obscure picture. Watching this movie, which is an incurious, stagnant little morass, and thinking about that quote, it’s not hard to draw the line about where the incuriosity and stagnancy hail from.

Out of Rossellini’s loose trilogy of war movies made in the wake of World War II, Germany, Year Zero has always struck me as the one which is the most dramatic for its own sake, the least of a great trio but no less a good movie for it. (It ought to go without saying that this is the kind of movie that Waititi might have done well to have like, heard of.) Edmund wanders a bombed-out Berlin, cognizant of the destruction and of the savage penury while not really understanding what brought it on. Even after the war, Edmund can be convinced by the ruthless offhand Darwinism of a schoolteacher to murder his own father, despite the teacher’s protestations that he never actually suggested that Edmund ought to do something so cruel. The movie ends with Edmund’s self-inflicted death, insofar as the blame for such a death could be put on a prepubescent boy whose entire life minus a few months has been spent in Nazi Germany. Edmund is not unlike Jojo (Griffin Davis). Both boys come from homes where the family has been shot to hell by the war and whose understanding of the world itself is badly warped by their youth and their upbringing during the height of Hitler’s reach. Jojo Rabbit cuts out just before a Germany, Year Zero timeline would begin for the orphaned protagonist and his Jewish friend, Elsa (McKenzie), who has spent some amount of time living in a crawlspace in the Betzler home. Where are they going to, as David Bowie’s “Heroes” plays a little predictably in the background? Context suggests that a teenage girl and a little boy, even ones who are currently housed somewhere, are not likely to do well in the dark days of post-Nazi ruin. Heck, you don’t even need to have seen Germany, Year Zero to know that just because the totalitarians have been driven out and replaced by Americans doesn’t mean that everything’s fine. You just would have had to be conscious for the Iraq War to know that that’s not how history works.

There are very few bad people in this movie, which seems incredible for a movie set in Nazi Germany. There’s Deertz (Stephen Merchant), a Gestapo agent, and his set of Gestapo men; they appear twice, once in a long sequence where they come to the Betzler home while Rosie (Johansson) is “out,” and then we don’t see them again until, disheveled and defeated, they are rounded up by Yankee soldiers. They are obviously bad, and they are dealt with. There are also the Hitler Youth who make fun of Jojo and kill the rabbit he couldn’t bring himself to off, although “big teenagers who pick on little kids” is so Amblin that it makes you wonder a little more about Waititi’s connection to the Spielberg Cinematic Universe. And then…that’s about it! It turns out that the guy running the local chapter of the Hitler Youth, Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, who appears to have an unsettling trend going of playing evil people who turn out not to be so bad once you get to know them), goes out on a limb to protect Elsa when Deertz and his men are searching the house, and then gets himself shot when he saves Jojo’s life at the end. Klenzendorf and his second, Finkel (Alfie Allen) are coded as gay at the end (smudgy eyeliner, feathers, pink triangles, etc.), which I think the movie is suggesting as its own form of resistance, but then again, Ernst Röhm existed, so I don’t know how much cachet I care to give that particular piece of signaling. There’s Adolf Hitler (Waititi), or more accurately Jojo’s mental projection of Adolf Hitler, who is of course not really Hitler at all but the part of Jojo’s brain which has been indoctrinated by the Nazis; he is not a good person, necessarily, but he also is about as toothless as you can expect.

It’s a toothless movie generally, Jojo Rabbit, one that I recall getting a lot of praise and a lot of condemnation and which, to be perfectly honest, is mostly milquetoast. It’s hard not to compare it to Joker, another movie from last year which got enough plaudits to win significant festival awards en route to Oscar noms/wins while simultaneously gaining the reproach of plenty of folks, professional critics or otherwise, who found the politics of the movie loathsome and the styling of the movie extremely derivative. The other ingredient that’s missing here is that for all the sturm und drang, both movies are really pretty milquetoast exercises from milquetoast filmmakers. There are long stretches of this movie where Jojo basically learns that Elsa is a person and not a monster, and then develops a crush on her which largely manifests itself in the way that he draws sketches of her supposed fiancee, Nathan, being executed in increasingly horrific ways. Once it’s clear that Jojo is not going to tell anyone, including his mother, that he knows Elsa exists, much of the drama is stripped from those interactions. All that’s left for us as a viewer is to hope that Jojo learns how to be a better person from someone whose family and friends are victims of the Holocaust and who has no responsibility more responsibility to her oppressor than any other survivor might have. Clearly, this is not much to hope for, and yet it’s somehow even worse given that Elsa’s sarcasm mostly just reiterates stereotypes about Jews or reinforces Jojo’s ugly indoctrination. In a movie where more Nazis are sympathetic figures than not and where Hitler is a bumbling fellow who appears in Jojo’s bed, what Jojo Rabbit is going for in that horror movie introduction to Elsa reads less as an over-the-top interpretation from a dumb kid’s perspective and more as bad taste without control over the material.

That so much of the movie is given over to Jojo’s re-education, and that this is meant to be so important is significant in deducing the movie’s perspective. If this movie were drawing from, oh, Ivan’s Childhood or Forbidden Games, it would not assume that just because it is told from a child’s point of view that the movie must be arithmetically simplistic. Because it’s drawing from like, The Goonies or Moonrise Kingdom instead, the vibe of an impressionable kid living where all the world is an only slightly sinister summer camp is what we’re supposed to be attracted to. If this movie did have the heart of Forbidden Games, it would understand that the ways that children misunderstand and come to terms with their limited conclusions can deliver incredible pathos. If this movie did have the brain of Ivan’s Childhood, it would understand that a child growing up in wartime does not look and sound mostly like every other fourth-grader, but is haunted by the previous war-specific experiences s/he has had. In working to be silly, or satirical (as if satire were still possible in 2019), the movie relies entirely on those elements for effectiveness, and if the movie is not silly enough, or not satirical enough, then the child in wartime angle is hardly going to make Jojo Rabbit compelling.

I suppose that one looks to Rosie’s story as a saving grace for this movie, and I suppose it might even raise up this material if it had any kind of specificity to it. Rosie leaves anti-Nazi material lying around as part of some resistance movement, one which, again, is nebulous because we only know what Jojo knows. Her husband is MIA, and the implication is that he’s MIA because he was killed for resisting the Nazis, the war, whatever. In one scene, she has a back and forth as herself and as Jojo’s bearded-with-soot father which is about as complex as and less funny than David Hasselhoff playing Jekyll and Hyde. Likewise, there is something very stilted and MFA-in-screenwriting about the setup for Jojo practically running into his mother’s shoes four feet above the ground. Throughout the movie, there has been a lot of emphasis on her distinctive shoes, and plenty of shoe-tying. Now, as her corpse dangles from the gibbet, Jojo ties her shoes in return. He hugs her legs, the only part of her he can reach. It is not the only sign of the darkness obscuring the sun in this movie, but it is emphatically the strongest, the only really dark moment with consequences that cannot be undone or worked around. As empty as the rest of the movie is, this is still a sad little moment. In five minutes, it’s as if it never happened. Jojo goes out and collects some veggies out of bins for meals, but that practical measure is the only real sign of grief he has to carry around. He screams for Klenzendorf when Klenzendorf is being dragged off to be shot, and then in future scenes there is even less sorrow for his death. Jojo Rabbit is, in the face of death, either totally forgetful about what that might do to someone in the oncoming minutes and months, or it is very afraid that death might ruin the good time. No one needs to give an iota of respect to a movie about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust which hasn’t got the guts to remember death or to make you feel bad. The fact that it wants you to feel good is the reason it’s trash.

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