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Jojo Rabbit is the Nazi satire society desperately needs

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Taika Waititi vaults over Wes Anderson’s head in his Hindu-esque dance of comedy and death

It’s not very often you say to your family, “hey, there’s a new movie out about a young Nazi kid in WWII whose imaginary friend is Hitler. I hear it’s hilarious. Let’s go see it.”

As film star Scarlett Johansson and writer, director, and co-star Taika Waititi have both pointed out: the film’s log line doesn’t read well. At all. But, appropriately in step with the lessons our young hero learns in the film itself — public perception isn’t always truth. In fact, oftentimes, it’s quite the opposite.

Aside from the unanimously pitch-perfect performances, a brilliant script, meticulous directing, gorgeous cinematography, a searingly appropriate soundtrack, and just about every other technical aspect you could mention, this movie is also just plain genius. It’s a brilliant shining gem of human empathy and emotional ingenuity. It made me belly laugh. It made me shout. It made me gasp. It made me grab my daughter and cover her eyes as I sobbed, being suddenly reminded how pivotal and fleeting my role as mother is — and that each joyful moment is precious.

I love Wes Anderson and his work dearly. But I think it may be time for him to retire. In JoJo Rabbit, Taika has taken so many of the highly stylized techniques we’re used to seeing in an Anderson film — fast-paced and witty dialogue, extremely specific costuming and set design, action scenes underlined by thematically selected pop music, and a general sense of meticulously curated whimsy — but he’s remixed them in a way which is wilder, darker, and sharper. And, quite frankly: while very similar in presentation, the dark and terrifying themes of Waititi’s film are very different from Anderson’s plots, which tend to revolve around the internal struggles of privileged people. Waititi’s themes (see also: Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok) focus on outright colonialization and war.

The theme of trying to to survive Nazi Germany with your morality in tact naturally lends itself to a little more societal depth than the theme of trying to survive being adopted into a rich family and falling in love with your brother (love you forever, Royal Tennenbaums, but you’re definitely on about #whitepeopleproblems).

Which is why the Nazi Germany genre is typically reserved for the austere arthouse film community, in films like Schindler’s List and The Piano, in which there is much crying and zero laughing.

Not since Roberto Benigni — that tiny little genius madman of an Italian comedian (and his unaccountably beautiful wife) — made Life is Beautiful in the 90s, has anyone been crazy enough to attempt to carve a comedy out of the events of Nazi Germany. Quentin Tarantino came damned close in 2009 with Inglorious Bastards, which was set in a fictional victorious Nazi Germany, and got roundly slapped by critics for doing so. Regardless, no one to date, that I’m aware of, has tried to make a Nazi Germany comedy as told through the eyes of a Nazi child.

But, like Benigni and Tarantino, I don’t think anyone would accuse Taika of being entirely sane. This film is not the creation nor undertaking of a sane person. But it is clearly the undertaking of a genius. And it seems to me that Taika’s style of crazy is exactly the antidote society needs right now.

After all, as Benigni said in defense of his film: “To laugh and cry comes from the same point of the soul, no?”

It’s a tough film to bill because the main premise itself is both scathingly pointed and bullishly forward. Our main protagonist, 10 year old Jojo, is a young German boy living in Nazi Germany who has, like all his peers, swallowed the propaganda of the Nazi state hook, line, and sinker. To the extent that his imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. Except, of course, it’s NOT Adolf Hitler — it’s a 10 year old good-hearted boy’s conjuration, which is an amalgamation of his subconscious and what it’s been fed by the society around him.

Imaginary friend Adolf is played by none other than Taika himself, who reluctantly places himself in the role of “that idiot,” as he refers to his character in press tours. And Taika’s portrayal is every bit as ridiculous as you would expect it to be — especially when his German accent slips, which is quite often. And while he does encourage and play backman to our protagonist Jojo, Adolf also proves himself to be rather gutless, suspicious, petty, and vindictive, as far as imaginary friends go.

Out of the gates, the film is forcing us to re-imagine the concept of “Hitler” through the lens of a young innocent who’s been the subject to propaganda. It forces us to empathize with a type of character which is…uncomfortable for us, on so many levels — but which is also critical for us, in this era of widespread state and corporation-sponsored propaganda.

As a German Nazi espousing Nazi ideals, Jojo would normally be considered a villain. But he’s a child — and an innocent, gentle-hearted one at that. In the first act, we see that Jojo doesn’t have the heart to pass the older Nazi boys’ test of killing a rabbit with his bare hands (hence his nickname, Jojo Rabbit) And he’s been fed lies by the authority figures and media around him. So we can’t NOT empathize with Jojo on the grounds of his innocence and circumstances, because in many ways, we are Jojo. We are trying to find our own sense of morality and humanity in the midst of a shitstorm of propaganda.

But empathizing with Jojo — a Nazi, even if he is only 10 years old — puts us on very uncomfortable social ground, indeed. Which, again, seems only appropriate for our current political climate of extremism. Who among us has the precognition to say which of our extremist political sects is poised to become the next Nazi party? (Richard Brody over at The New Yorker believes that he is, apparently, solely on the basis that he thinks it encourages empathy towards Trump supporters, which is apparently unacceptable under any terms. Which makes me conclude that Brody doesn’t understand the film’s messages about the nature of propaganda and bigotry — nor does he grasp the concept of nonviolence in general.)

It’s worth noting, as Taika himself has cited as being part of his research during the film’s press tour, that children in Nazi Germany were directly encouraged by their teachers and authority figures to rebel against their parents, and even to report their parents to the authorities for having anti-Nazi sympathies. The required schooling of Nazi Germany may not have been nearly as cartoonish as it’s depicted in Jojo Rabbit, but it wasn’t far off in terms of content.

We see the impact of this propaganda also play out the book Jojo is writing about Jews, which is both wildly creative and fantastically inaccurate. He attributes them with horns, telepathy, scales, and all sorts of fantastic supernatural powers, much to the delight and encouragement of the authority figures around him. He presents these findings, and follow up questions, to Elsa, the Jewish girl his mother is hiding in their house, with comedic audacity. Her response to play along with Jojo’s fantastical assertions seems only fitting.

Because, in the face of such propaganda-fed absurdity, what else is there to do but to laugh? The whole thing might be horrific — but it’s also just plain silly. And what’s the best way to set a bully back on their heels? Laugh in their face.

It successfully jolts Jojo into realizing how ridiculous the propaganda is which he’s been sold. Which, in turn, jolts us into realizing how susceptible we as a society are to the endless barrage of hate propaganda around us as well, whether it’s spoken by Sean Hannity on Fox News or by Richard Brody on The New York Times.

I can’t say that I’ve ever encountered a mother character in a film quite like Jojo’s mother, Rosie (played by Scarlett Johansson). Specifically in the ease of her sense of purpose, her natural comedic quirkiness, and her intimately playful parenting style. She feels more like any other character I’ve encountered to be a woman who has a life to live, who has a defined sense of personhood, and who in addition to these things is also a mother. And a damned good one at that. Being the mother of a 10 year old Nazi while harboring a Jewish girl in your house and actively promoting the resistance in the heart of Nazi territory is a razor sharp tightrope to walk. But Rosie does it with a smile on her face and a lightness of foot — with the help of the occasional bottle of wine.

How do you teach your son not to hate when doing so could endanger your very life?

You smear fireplace ash over your chin in lieu of a beard and channel your husband when your son demands to talk to his father. And you give him a realistic act — alcoholism and PTSD-induced verbal abuse included.

You prank him by tying his shoelaces together to remind him that he needs to learn to tie his shoes himself. You volley back his comment that “love is stupid” by replying “you’re stupid.” You tease him, and play with him, like he’s a boy of flesh and bone and not a china doll.

You teach him to dance, and to celebrate life. To cherish each beautiful moment as a gift, because this is the true value in life — not politics, and war games.

You make him look at the dead bodies of the people who were hanged for doing, in Rosie’s words, “what they could.” You prepare him for your possible demise, in the process.

I’ll be honest with you: it was a bit terrifying for me to watch, as I saw some of my own proclivities as a mother so strongly mirrored in Rosie. Even in the theater, I was doing something not dissimilar — drawing my daughter’s attention to things which are true. “How did everything get destroyed?” she asks when a scene cuts to the city’s bombed-out state. “Planes dropped bombs to try to defeat the Nazis so they stop killing people. And now everyone’s home is destroyed. This is what real war looks like. This is what real war does to real people. This happens in real life when people make war.” “Yes, I know,” she says, this not being her first lecture on the nature of war.

I’m going to hide behind a no spoilers rule on this post and stop my commentary on Rosie there. But really, the truth is that I just don’t have the heart to say more. It’s too close to home.

I will say that this is, hands down, the best performance I’ve seen Scarlett give — and I held her work in quite high regard prior to this film. I really hope Scarlett and Taika do more work together in the future, as Taika clearly has a knack for creating roles which make her comedic and dramatic talents shine, and vice versa.

Another shining bright star in this movie is Captain K — played to perfection by Sam Rockwell (my husband, who has many German business associates, couldn’t stop fawning over how good his accent was). A one-eyed German Nazi war veteran (read: a Nazi war criminal), Captain K’s injuries have banished him from the frontlines, so he’s stuck running war training camp for German kids. He’s a cartoonishly outlandish character, and sardonically aware of Nazi Germany’s impending doom (and therefore his own), as only Sam Rockwell can pull off.

Captain K has sketched out, in colored pencil, a rendering of his ideal uniform for riding into final battle — resplendent with flowing crimson robes, eyeliner, and a portable record player for blasting music while he charges forward. As Captain K shares this rendering with Jojo, like two children pouring over a comic book, Jojo slyly steals some of his coloring pencils, revealing the reality that this rendering is the work of a child in a man’s body.

Which, of course, reminds us that the entire Nazi regime is build around one big silly boy’s club, all meant to prop up childishly inflated egos. This is something which Elsa, the Jewish girl being hidden by Jojo’s mother in their home, reminds Jojo of quite directly: “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a 10 year old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”

Jojo is under Captain K’s ward when he blows himself up with a grenade in the opening act — a fact which Rosie points out deftly by wordlessly kicking Captain K in the balls and slapping him with her leather glove. The Captain accepts his punishment and ensuing demotion doggedly, and goes about his cartoonishly pointless existence as he waits for the war to end — badly for him and his compatriots.

But, as any great Falstaffian foil does, Captain K offers us more than just comic relief. He is a complex character with a relatable history, and he is not, in the end, without a sense of morality. It’s Captain K who arrives just in the nick of time to save Jojo and Elsa from the Gestapo, deftly enough that Jojo and Elsa aren’t even sure that Captain K is an ally. And it’s Captain K who saves Jojo from the American firing squad in the end. Fittingly, he does this by putting back on his silly Nazi bigotry. But not before Captain K and Jojo share an intimate moment of friendship.

And not before Captain K gets in his glorious last stand, resplendent in his regal uniform and accompanying phonogram sound track. A doomed war criminal, aware that he’s hitched himself to the loosing party, having no moral allegiance to the cause he’s fighting for. Captain K is nothing but a remnant of glory which never was and never will be, and he knows it — yet he chooses to go down in style, according to his own particular idiom. It is not, in many ways, dissimilar to the lesson Rosie was teaching Jojo: to dance, and to celebrate life as the gift it is in each moment, before it slips away.

It’s complicated. Because he’s a Nazi war criminal, which very likely makes him an outright murderer. And he’s also a secret ally to the Jews — or, at least one which we’re aware of. He’s a self-centered buffoon. But he’s also self-aware, and refuses to relinquish his enthusiasm for life, despite the shitty circumstances around him and the shitty decisions which lay behind him.

Captain K is more like the mentors we encounter in real life: complicated, and a mix of good and bad which we have to sort out for ourselves.

In true gallows humor form, the film’s most terrifying character is played by the absurdly funny and physically awkward comedian, Stephen Merchant. The balance in Merchant’s depiction of this Gestapo leader between hilarity and horror is razor-sharp, and makes for one of the most intensely emotional scenes I’ve encountered. Without saying too much, let’s just say that death hangs heavy over this scene and this portion of the film, as does the potential for life. Merchant’s portrayal serves to underline the absurdity of the ideology which is driving the horrors at play here. We can’t stop laughing, even though we’re on the edges of our seats in horror.

Taika’s attitude towards life and death shows its colors in moments like these, and reveals itself to be less western in its philosophy, and more eastern. There’s a lot of Hindu philosophy at play, here, in my estimation.

We see it in the dark, unflinching whimsy and laugh-out-loud antics which fill the moments between the plot like mortar between bricks. Captain K’s doomed and glorious last stand, and swift end. The rapid and off-handed reference to the swarm of identical clone boys created by German scientists, who we see again as they charge the Americans to their deaths. Rebel Wilson’s Fraulein Rahm haphazardly waving and pointing her loaded pistol in everyone’s faces, slapping conscriptions and guns into the hands of children, horrifically hilarious in her apathy towards human life — including her own. “I myself have have eighteen children for Germany,” she proclaims sardonically to the children. “It’s a vonderful time to be a girl in Germany.”

Imaginary friend Adolf dining on a unicorn’s head while Jojo rummages in the trash for his and Elsa’s dinner. Captain K’s assistant bringing in a group of old shepherds who are Germans, instead of the dogs the Captain had meant to request — a flat out groaner pun in the middle of death and destruction.

“It’s okay,” we hear Captain K comfort his assistant as we pan away, “it’s a shtupid name for a dog, anyvay.”

Everywhere, we have death and life smashing right up against one another. Horror and comedy, tragedy and joy. We’re bombarded with both simultaneously, over and over again, until we can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. Until we understand, through the meditative acts of laughing then crying and laughing and crying and laughing and crying again, that the only thing that matters is life, now, in this moment. Is holding on to the precious gift that is life in each moment, instead of being a slave to the hateful agendas around us.

I think it’s no accident that the core message of the film revolves around dancing. Rosie’s instruction to Jojo, by word and example, to love life and to dance, returns to Jojo and Elsa, as they dance into the streets in the final moments of the film. There couldn’t be a more Hindu cap to this film’s lessons on life, death, comedy, and tragedy. Hinduism’s Shiva, god of consciousness and black holes, does his dance of destruction to generate new life. Shiva’s partner Kali has her own dance of death to purge the world from its destructive demonic forces — a dance which Shiva prevents from destroying the Earth through loving self sacrifice. Shiva is lord of the dance, and teaches his powerful wife Shakti (an iteration of Kali and Parvati) to dance — Shakti, who is the goddess of raw kundalini power.

Dancing is both a metaphor for the transition between death and life, and a literal depiction of the raw ecstatic joy of which life is comprised.

And that’s what Jojo Rabbit is: a graphic, outrageous dance of destruction, which burns away old habits and reminds us how precious life truly is.

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