Reflections on "Jojo Rabbit"

Written and directed by Taika Waititi

Based on "Caging Skies" by Christine Leunens

Starring Roman Griffith Davis, Thomasin MacKenzie,

Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell and Taika Waititi

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

Although this film is set in Germany in 1945 and it deals with issues arising from that context, it uses contemporary sensitivities and structural techniques to impart its messages.

10-year-old Jojo has been conditioned and radicalised by the Nazi Third Reich and Adolf Hitler's rhetoric. There are numerous examples of the means and methods of moulding the minds and bodies of these youthful citizens, and these are often presented with a knowing and conspiratorial humour as absurd and at odds with modern ideals of respect and humanity, especially as Jojo attends a Youth Camp where he is to be trained in combat and survival. Activities are organised and presided over by Klenzendorf, an officer whose wounds have precluded further front-line service and whose cynical barbs have little meaning for his youthful audience but they may resonate with the adult viewing audience.

Hitler, or a camp child-like version of him, is Jojo's imaginary best friend, emphasising the absolutely essential part he has played in Jojo's development and psyche, yet he is adapted to incorporate Jojo's underlying insecurities, attitudes and anxieties. He is a sort of friendly guiding mentor who shares and tries to respond to Jojo's fundamental questions and doubts. However, as the film progresses and Jojo experiences events, feelings and an understanding that cause him to come into conflict with Hitlerian ideals, this Hitler mentor loses his Jojo qualities and reverts more to type, allowing Jojo to see him more clearly for what he is.

Jojo is keen to maintain the security achieved through conformity and compliance, emphasised by his regular wearing of a Nazi-style uniform, but his underlying and essential humanity and empathy assert themselves when he is required to kill a rabbit, thus proving he has the strength and willpower to kill for the Fuhrer but he takes flight instead. Determined to show his courage and prove himself worthy, he attempts to lob a grenade but ends up wounded and disfigured, perhaps thus embodying the scarring of the nation's youth through these actions.

Jojo's natural compassion and tolerance are further exercised and developed when he discovers his mother has been sheltering a Jewish girl in his home. Contact with this girl, Elsa, provides the opportunity to put to the test and disprove some of the plainly ridiculous Nazi claims regarding Jews and as he converses with Elsa, Jojo develops a relationship with her, subliminally causing him to doubt the validity of his imposed Nazi outlook and views.

There are some nicely observed scenes between Jojo and his mother, revealing relationship problems which are exacerbated by Nazi models and conditioning, but which can always be resolved by love and humanity. Jojo is plunged into confusion and vengeful anger when his beloved mother is hanged for anti-Nazi activities, a discovery he makes while appreciating the beauty, freedom and innocence of nature, contrasting violently with the eye-opening consequences and brutal reality of living under the oppressive Nazi regime. Driven by a desire to strike out and in keeping with his indoctrination, Jojo tries to stab Elsa but his heart and his gentle nature are not in it and she helps him recover as they turn to one another to survive.

As the Allied forces converge on their town, German forces, including Youth Leader Klenzendorf, make a last-ditch attempt to defend their position. Jojo is implicated in these actions because he has been given a Nazi Youth jacket and he is due to be summarily executed along with Klenzendorf and the others.

In a way, Klenzendorf may be viewed as an adult equivalent of Jojo. Although regularly used as a tool for poking fun at the Nazis, he has displayed attitudes and has passed cynical and knowing remarks which reflect a degree of experience, reflection and doubt about the worth of the Nazi cause. He protected Elsa when she gave an incorrect date of birth during an interrogation and now, as Jojo is about to be executed at his side, he removes the Nazi Youth jacket from Jojo, rather symbolically stripping him of all remaining vestiges of overt Nazi influence and pointedly pushes him away, claiming he is a Jew, knowing that will ensure his safety. Klenzendorf served his country faithfully and is willing to pay the price for acts he has committed to that end, but reflection and humanity have led him to abandon the faith that brought him to this point.

Jojo returns home to free Elsa though he tries, childishly and unsuccessfully, to manipulate her into staying with him and eventually, without a shred of Nazi uniform and in total freedom, they dance to celebrate their emancipation.

Just prior to this, Jojo is confronted by his best friend Adolf who now more distinctly resembles his namesake when he rants and gesticulates in anger at Jojo as he tries to re-assert his influence. However, by now Jojo has experienced what it truly means to be a Nazi and, having reflected on these experiences and allowed himself to be guided by reason and humanity, he rejects Hitler and his ethos in no uncertain terms. He has become an independent thinker, unreliant on and perhaps immune to indoctrination based on hate and manipulative lies used to channel energy and effort to a dubious cause.

It was with some trepidation that I approached this film as I often fail to appreciate what are billed as "black comedies". The clips I had seen suggested an anarchic style which seemed to break the fourth wall, with characters virtually addressing the audience, and I find that is rarely successful and requires a very delicate yet sure-handed touch behind the camera. Fortunately, Taika Waititi possesses such a touch and I thoroughly enjoyed his self-aware and funny, yet thought-provoking, touching and engaging film.

As the film's narrative is largely presented from the perspective of a ten-year-old child, the almost naive and direct style of presentation is entirely apt and touchingly affecting as it incorporates the child's mind-set and understanding, yet the very purpose and controlled composition of the film, knowing asides and moments of humour make this a very adult and intelligent film.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie ( stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk)

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