Jojo Rabbit (2019, dir. Taika Waititi) is marketed as… a comedy? But it’s not really a comedy: it’s a feel-good movie that happens to, erm, humanize a handful of nazi officers. Which is a bit uncomfortable but, more than that, the movie feels–I don’t want to say cynical: I get the impression that Waititi’s intent is probably pure (probably!), but if you’ve watched this kind of thing before (without the nazi Germany trappings) then a lot of the movie’s beats will feel incredibly conventional.
I won’t waste time going over the story: the basic premise is that Johannes, a ten-year-old Hitler Youth, pokes around his house to discover that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in the attic. From then on, the film unfolds in an exploration of indoctrination and how Johannes’ (‘Jojo’) contact with the Jewish girl, Elsa, gradually breaks it down. And it’s for the most part about as simple it sounds even if you take into account that Jojo’s imaginary friend is Hitler himself (played as a buffoon by Waititi): the core message is that an indoctrinated child can be taught that the ‘other’ he’s been taught to hate are people too if he spends enough time with them, with the implication that perhaps some of the adults might even be taught the same.
To the film’s credit, Elsa is far from a ‘teachable moment’ cipher which exists solely for Jojo to learn a lesson about empathy and common humanity: she’s fiercely acted, angry but unbowed. Throughout the film she threatens to cut Jojo’s little nazi head off at least twice. But due to the way the film is structured and the fact she has to spend most of her time hiding, she exists almost as a foil to the imaginary Hitler, popping in when Jojo needs more character development and another lesson about How We’re All Humans, Actually and how everything he’s been taught about Jewish people is of course bigoted lies peddled by a fascist regime. ‘You’re not a Nazi, Jojo,’ Elsa eventually tells him, ‘you’re a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.’ Which is true, of course (he’s ten!), and is no doubt resonant with people who’ve seen young teens radicalized by today’s fascist propaganda machines, but again, it drives home that this is what Elsa is here for, to be the lesson in empathy and an instrument of deradicalization.
So, the humanized nazi officers: I’m not talking Jojo himself, but the Captain K and his assistant who run the Hitler Youth training camp. Captain K lost his eye fighting, and almost certainly has participated in the Holocaust, and is none too happy that he has to stay home training ten-year-olds now. In a scene that seems almost obligatory, the Gestapo comes to Jojo’s house and interrogates Elsa. Captain K to the rescue: he lies about her identity documents and helps convince the Gestapo officers that Elsa is actually Jojo’s older sister Inga. Why does he lie about it? Who knows. Does his decision to rescue one Jewish girl redeem him? Not really (nor does his later decision to save Jojo from American soldiers), and the film does treat him to a firing squad toward the end. But it’s also… unnecessary. There were of course any number of ways Elsa could have successfully pretended to be Inga (like correctly remembering her birthday, say), and Captain K’s role in that scene is a very particular kind of choice. We’re all people, even nazi officers, apparently.
Am I qualified to judge this film on its treatment of the Holocaust? Of course not, I’m not Jewish and Waititi is. The amount of what I know about nazi Germany could fit in a thimble, so I’m not going to comment on any of that either.
What I will say is that I enjoyed the film–the acting is tremendous–but I kept getting this niggling sense that it’s a little… much, or a little pat, or a little something. I’m stuck with not quite knoing what to make of it. By the film’s end, Elsa can finally leave the attic and walk the streets of Berlin freely, and I’d like to hope she goes on to do everything she wanted to do, whether that’s looking a tiger in the eye or breaking men’s hearts, but the entire thing left me thinking ‘That’s it?’ because while it is an emotionally affecting movie I couldn’t get rid of the sense that it’s also at its heart deeply conventional, nearly formulaic, too feel-good. It’s fine. But it doesn’t sit quite right, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing that I enjoyed it.