Jojo Rabbit: Laugh Hard at the Absurdly Evil

By: Talya Stehley  |  December 18, 2019
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By Talya Stehley, Staff Writer

(First of all, yes, I know The Commentator already did a piece on this movie. And that reviewer’s main issue was with the film’s tone.) 

I was definitely surprised, seeing the movie after seeing the trailer. It is not a start-to-finish irreverent comedy with anti-fascist undertones. Tonally, it reminds me a bit of Slaughterhouse-Five, but even Slaughterhouse-Five kept its off-kilter sensibilities throughout even the worst things the protagonist experienced. But there’s an obvious difference between Kurt Vonnegut and Taika Waititi. Vonnegut fought in World War II. He experienced the things he wrote about, except for maybe the parts with the space aliens, while Waititi contends with a degree of historical distance in discussing his subject matter. Waititi needs a greater degree of sensitivity in discussing World War II and the Holocaust, because he wasn’t there. This is evident in every fiber of Jojo Rabbit’s being.

That isn’t to say that Jojo Rabbit lacks humor. The film has jokes aplenty, many of them funny. But the film’s sense of humor is coupled with what some might see as an unreasonably inconsistent tone, but what I see as an admirable sense of restraint. Other critics have made the argument that the film uses its Jewish characters as props for the non-Jewish protagonist’s growth, but at the same time, its humor seems to intentionally subvert Mel Brooks’ maxim that “tragedy is when I stub my toe, comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die.” The protagonist/viewpoint character’s disfiguring injury is played for laughs, but the suffering of Jewish people is always presented without a hint of levity. Though young Jojo is the protagonist, the movie never loses sight of the fact that he is not the real victim of the things that are going on around him.

The film has a sense of visual intentionality throughout, exemplified in its more surrealistic and cartoonish elements. A character having a crush is represented by a shot of literal butterflies in his stomach. There’s also this really interesting shot that’s used for several conversations between main characters. One character will be a few feet behind the other, and they both face the camera, which shifts focus to the speaking character. I don’t know what it’s supposed to represent (maybe that the characters are not on the same page philosophically?), but it sure looks cool.   

The film makes a clearly deliberate choice to front-load its humor, and gets bleaker as Jojo starts to understand how bad things are. One comment I encountered on Tumblr while working on this review, expressed concern that despite Waititi’s good intentions making Jojo Rabbit, that it would appeal to the very people it’s satirizing. But after seeing the movie, one starts to wonder if the trailers weren’t intentionally designed to give that impression, to promise a silly comedy about goofy Nazis, and then deliver a movie about the horrors of war. I certainly had the sensation of being bait-and-switched. This theory of an intentional bait-and-switch is strengthened by the fact that the opening of the movie is most similar to the trailer, as Jojo, the protagonist goes on a weekend camping trip for Hitler Youth. These opening scenes are also the most uncomfortable to watch, particularly the scene, also shown in the trailer, where children are shown talking unchallenged about how loathsome and monstrous Jewish people are. It’s probably for the best that the whole movie isn’t like that. 

The next day, one of the older boys tells Jojo to kill a rabbit to prove his strength, but Jojo can’t bring himself to do it. In an attempt to prove that he is capable of living up to this Nazi ideal of masculinity, Jojo gets into an accident with a hand grenade. The way he’s thrown back by the grenade is cartoonish, but we soon find that Jojo has been permanently disfigured. He’s pulled out of school while he recovers, and this gives him the chance to reevaluate his place in society. In those long days home alone, he discovers that his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl in their attic, giving him a reason for reevaluation. 

There’s a sharp tonal shift after Jojo’s accident, and the movie never gets that care-free, irreverent tone back. The movie only gets bleaker from there, as Jojo gains a better understanding of what’s really going on. Jojo Rabbit definitely had an element of bait-and-switch for me, but thematically, it works. At its core, the movie is about the death of innocence, and the movie gets darker and darker as Jojo realizes how bad things really are. The camp counselor whose awful rhetoric was played for comedy at the film’s beginning is shown strapping explosives to child soldiers in an extremely uncomical fashion at the end. What seems charming to the protagonist at first, is later understood to be monstrous.

Some have expressed distaste in particular for the film’s comical portrayal of Adolf Hitler — that it trivializes the atrocities he committed. But the film goes to great pains to remind the audience that Waititi’s version of Hitler is imaginary – existing only in the mind of the ten-year-old protagonist. His way of speaking resembles less the infamous dictator, and more Steve from Blues Clues. His solutions to problems are fanciful, and at one point he mentions being in the habit of eating unicorns. Only at the very end, when Jojo has begun to reject Nazi ideology entirely, does Imaginary Hitler start to sound like the real one, yelling and trying to intimidate Jojo, in his final appearance. He shows up with a bloody hole in his head (as Jojo has recently been informed of Hitler’s suicide), before Jojo can banish him from his life for good. We never see real Hitler, only what he looks like to a boy who initially idolizes him.

I don’t think that Jojo Rabbit is excessively irreverent. If anything, it tends to err on the side of gravity rather than levity. While the protagonist’s suffering is mostly played for laughs, Jewish suffering is not. The film makes a deliberate effort not to punch down, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of humor. I don’t think Jojo Rabbit is insulting or socially irresponsible, but I’ll also acknowledge that people have different levels of tolerance for humor about the subject matter. Some may feel the film goes too far, others may feel it doesn’t go far enough. I thought Jojo Rabbit was a good movie, even if I didn’t always enjoy it, but your mileage may vary.  

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Photo: Jojo Rabbit Poster

Photo Source: © Fox Searchlight

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