Please note, this is not a review. This article is an informal discussion of my response to Jojo Rabbit. Beware, spoilers ahead!
Released on 1st January 2020, Jojo Rabbit is an adaptation of Caging Skies, written by Christine Leunens back in 2008. Like Leunen’s novel, Waititi’s film follows the story of Johannes, an avid member of the Hitler Youth, who finds a young, Jewish girl named Elsa hiding in his home.
The film’s production took place in 2019, a year that saw a number of conflicts both politically and socially. A well known and oft used technique in filmmaking is to talk about current events in a different setting, an inconspicuous rouse to tell people what you really think whilst avoiding the response of those you are jabbing at.
Taika Waititi described his film as an “anti-hate satire”, which I think just about hits the nail on the head. It points out some of the fundamentals of what inspires hate and what is created from hate, and why these are, at times, completely illogical.
It’s often said that tragedy breeds comedy, and we often find the two hand in hand. One of the ways to point out someone’s or something’s flaws is to ridicule them into a great big, lampooning caricature of themselves. I think this is one of the ways Jojo Rabbit has successfully made a largely comical film out of horrific subject matter.
The film is set in Germany before the end of the Second World War, and follows the life of Jojo, a ten-year-old jingoist. Hitler is not only Jojo’s idol and role model, but his imaginary friend too. Jojo is a Deutsches Jungvolk (Hitler Youth) member, but after an injury he is made to focus on carrying out various other activities, such as spreading propaganda.
The film demonstrates the complete and utter absurdity of a child’s role in Nazi Germany. I remember one particular scene where Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) is handing out rifles to children, and earlier, knives. Jojo Rabbit manages to point fun at the desperation of Germany in the final weeks of WW2, but not at the expense of German civilians. Further still, even military figures such as Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) are portrayed as victims by the end of the film. In Jojo Rabbit, the Nazi government is very much the villain, and it always seems far more ludicrous when the adult characters reel off propagation about Jewish people having horns, or some other ideological nonsense.
One thing I really liked about this film is that the viewer only sees what Jojo sees, and Jojo only sees his mother, his youth group, and Elsa. Although he has a radio and sees various snippets of news, much of it is not credible. You can understand how a child would begin to buy into the propaganda he hears and sees everyday, and this stirs a sense of pity for the young Nazis.
Jojo’s mother, Rosie, and Elsa, the young Jewish girl his mother is hiding, provide a stark contrast to the other side of Jojo’s social group. They are there to challenge his blind beliefs. Elsa never reveals details to Jojo about the horrors Jewish people faced, and it’s unclear whether she knew the extent of it herself.
Often when we watch historical films, we see experiences, such as war, on a macro scale. Although this is contextually informative, it doesn’t necessarily provide the best gateway into understanding the way a character feels. This makes it very hard for the viewer to feel animosity towards characters like Jojo and Captain Klenzendorf, because warfare victimises everyone.
Jojo Rabbit is not just a comedy, its also a drama and there are some really sobering moments throughout. The death of Jojo’s mother in particular is, for me, probably the most sobering. The audience knows what Rosie is up to, and we know what the consequences were for those against the Nazi party in Germany. However, Jojo doesn’t. In following the character of Jojo, it makes it that much more shocking when Rosie is found hung in street just outside his home.
This leads me into discussing the style of the film. Jojo Rabbit is not only substantial in its purpose, but also in its visually aesthetic choices. One of the first things I noticed when the film started was that firstly, it was shot on film, and secondly, it wasn’t shot in the super-duper, eye-popping, widescreen format that has become so commonplace at the cinema today. On an aesthetic level, the grain suited the style of the film, and I thought it really helped convey its colour palette. The colours of the film were both sombre and fun at the same time, much like the film itself. Most of the scenes were shot during daylight, and there was a bright quality to it, like a sense of hopefulness. The parts of the film that were darker in colour were usually darker in tone, like Jojo’s discovery of Elsa, or the smoke in the city after the allies won. Furthermore, the group of Gestapo’s mooching about Jojo’s home, in their stark black uniforms, looked so malevolent in the cosy house.
Jojo Rabbit uses contrast in all sort of ways to suggest comparisons but it also uses colour to convey connections. For example, we often see Rosie wearing cream and red brogues, and they are much of the only thing we see when after her execution. We see her dance in them, and riding her bike with Jojo. At the end of the film, when Elsa is free, we see her wearing a different style of shoe but in the exact same colours. Although Elsa is probably wearing clothes left by either Rosie or Inge, the colours tie together the idea that Elsa is now Jojo’s maternal figure, overall noting that he won’t be alone.
Jojo Rabbit doesn’t only use colour in this way, it also uses imagery. One particular example I really enjoyed was the use of the butterfly. First, we see a poster with species of butterflies on Jojo’s bedroom wall. We see that he has drawn butterflies surrounding a drawing he made of him and his mother out riding their bicycles. The next time we see butterflies are in Jojo’s stomach, and if memory serves, one of the final times is when Jojo follows a blue butterfly only to arrive at the feet of his executed mother. I think it’s no coincidence that the butterfly is a transformative insect. Further still, the butterfly evokes freedom. A caterpillar is trapped inside her own chrysalis, her own metamorphosing body. The butterfly functions like a response to Rosie’s message of free Germany.
The most memorable moment featuring music for me was at the end of the film when we heard David Bowie’s ultra famous Heroes (1977). I don’t think this was a bad choice in any way, but I have heard it in so, so many films. I get the point, but I think a (if I may dare say the word) better choice would have been Holland, 1945 (1998) by Neutral Milk Hotel. It’s relevant and it’s sound is unclean. For me, Heroes seemed just a little too polished and wholesome and I would have liked something more melancholy.
I think the overarching theme of Jojo Rabbit was hope. Each and every character of the film depended on hope. For Hitler, he hoped he’d win the war. For Rosie, she hoped she’d see a free Germany. Elsa hoped she would able to live freely. Jojo hoped for a family.
I really enjoyed watching Jojo Rabbit and I will definitely be purchasing it when it comes out on disc. I will look forward to rewatching the film to see what details I missed, and if any of my opinions change. What did you think of the film and do you think you will watch it again? Leave a comment if you like!