Let me start with a scenario… bring to the forefront of your mind the worst horrors known to man. Add some inappropriate humor and make it into a film. Would you be interested in going to see that film? Some would, however personally I was not. I take an avid interest in our history, especially World War 2 but to me the thought of taking such a horrifically world changing event and turning it into a comedy would be simply a travesty. When I first saw the trailer for JoJo Rabbit I was initially intrigued. Anything history related and I’m usually on it. However on this occasion I very quickly changed my mind. As the trailer continued I was bitterly disappointed to see an impersonation of Adolf Hitler jovially bouncing across the screen. In that moment I judged the film. I presumed the creators where trying to make light of the unbelievably inhumane events that happened during World War 2. I wanted no part of it. To say I was somewhat reluctant to see this film, despite it reflecting my interest would be an understatement. I’d pretty much decided that I would avoid this one, until my friend (who is arguably more open minded than myself) gave it a rave review. He almost insisted on seeing it again, encouraging me to come along. With some persuasion he convinced me to open my mind and give it a chance. I will admit I went in skeptical. But all I will say for now is don’t judge a book by its cover, or in this case don’t judge a film by its trailer.
The film primarily follows the story of a young 10 year old German boy who is finding his way in a world ridden by war. As the film begins we see him preparing to go off to boot camp, a seemingly exciting experience where he will learn how to become a German soldier. Here we are introduced to JoJo (Johannes, played by Roman Griffin Davis) as an influenced child, striving to be accepted, to do his part in “saving our country”. We see him proudly showing off his gleaming uniform, even practising his Heil Hitler to his imagniery friend (Adolf Hitler himself (played by Taika Waititi who also directed the film.)). Many times I’ve wondered how it was that Hitler not only came to power but also managed to seize so many followers. For me these boot camp scenes suggest how this can shockingly be possible. Take a nation of youngsters, eager to be accepted and part of something great, glorify violence as fun, make it the must-be club and you have yourself an army of up and coming loyalists. The camp scenes fittingly nod towards some of the realities of World War 2, for example the burning of books, lessons geared towards false truths about the Jews and even the difference between the genders, women being expected to do household duties and pro-create in comparison to the entertaining violence offered to the men and boys. It is very clear that these young boys and girls will do almost anything to be involved, even being untrue to themselves, doing things they would never normally consider as individuals if it means being accepted, being part of what at the time they believed was the greater good. The realities of a nation at war.
From the outset I saw JoJo being subtly portrayed as different from the other characters. When running through trees JoJo loses his breath, having to slow down and take a moment. Although eager to join in, his innocence is highlighted frequently as little JoJo talks about killing but then can’t even click his fingers. In addition JoJo (as well as his loveable friend) shows some hesitation or doubt at times and especially when put on the spot JoJo stays true to himself, refusing to kill a rabbit despite the jeers and pressure of those around him. Due to an unfortunate incident (watch out for the jovial Hitler galloping across the screen. I was very humbled to see that despite the portrayal in the trailer this was in fact a very uplifting and heart-warming sight) JoJo leaves camp and ends up spending a lot more time at home than a 10 year old should.
JoJo hears an unusual noise and through some investigation finds a Jew living in a secret attic space in his dead sister’s bedroom. The way this girl is originally portrayed completely reflects how a Jew would be in the mind of an influenced 10 year old boy. She seems creepy, walking her fingers down the banister, dangerous by threatening him, but appropriately she quite correctly highlights that if JoJo were to report her, his whole family would be in danger as after all “they would kill the Jew and anyone who helped the Jew”. After JoJo plucks up the courage and after clearly not being able to hold back his curiosity, it is revealed that this young girl, Elsa (played by Thomasin McKenzie) grew up with JoJo’s sister. I feel this is an important fact as it highlights how once everyone had lived side by side but how the war had changed so many lives, this young girl who was once a friend was now viewed as the enemy, having to hide in silence, in the dark, relying on the help of others to save her own life. JoJo and Elsa seemingly begrudgingly become companions, JoJo asking her many questions in order to write a book about the Jews and Elsa obviously desperate for company and hope. The portrayal of Elsa slowly and effectively softens throughout the film, presenting her as more and more normal as JoJo’s opinion of her clearly changes. I think it is vital here to also mention how JoJo’s relationship with imaginary Hitler decreases and becomes more irritated as his friendship with Elsa grows. Hitler’s opinions and demeanor become more brutal, seemingly mirroring JoJo’s changing views and standing among the Reich.
As the film goes on it becomes apparent that JoJo’s mum (Played by Scarlett Johansson) may well be one of the extremely brave who stood up against the fighting in World War 2. Early on in the film we see some rebels hung in the town square. JoJo and his mum look on, poignantly quiet. We see his mum burning secret messages, placing her own propaganda around the city and it is very obvious that she is helping Elsa to stay in hiding, she is a beacon of hope and positivity among a war saturated world, “doing what she can” and remaining optimistic among all the tragedy, “dancing to show god we are grateful to be alive”. I really don’t want to spoil the plot for you however what I am to describe next literally moved me to tears and I cannot dismiss the importance of the tragedy. JoJo accidently bumps into his mums feet as she is hung in the town square. At the moment you realise it is her, all you see is her beautiful and easily identifiable shoes, her own propaganda attached to her trouser leg. JoJo does the only thing he can do and desperately hugs her legs and feet. A small young boy, trying to make sense of the world finds his mum dead, he cannot even hug her properly, he can never speak to her again, he is left completely alone. What moved me most here however is that JoJo, in his desperation tries to tie his mum’s shoes laces, a theme that is stressed several times throughout the film, again emphasising the innocence of this small boy. The reality is millions of people died during World War 2, some fighting in battle, others murdered for their race and some simply doing what they could to do the right thing. It is so easy to forget that every single one of those deaths left someone behind, a wife without a husband, a sister without a brother and in this heart-breaking case, a little boy without his mum.
As the film begins to draw to a close we see the pressure that an entire nation was under as our allies drew ever closer. They have lost their leader, lost their way, every man, woman and child is dragged into the fighting and madness almost ensues as civilianians of every shape and size are forced into battle. As the fighting stops and allied forces take over the city, the truth shines through. The “bag-guys” are rounded up, JoJo’s life is saved (another very moving and emotional moment) and a country begins the impossible task of trying to carry on and move forwards. Elsa (and no doubt thousands of other Jews) are free to come out of hiding, although sadly and ironically have nowhere to go and nothing to do but dance, at the very least they are free to dance! (I thought the song choice for this moment was excellent).
All in all I will admit that when I saw the trailer I completely misjudged this film. For me it subtly hinted towards many realities of World War 2 and although did so at times in a quite quirky and slightly jovial way, I think on the whole it remained thoroughly respectful and honest to the truth and reality of war. The acting is wonderful, especially from JoJo, he is so incredibly believable. Obviously there are many other wonderful moments and characters I could have spoken about, however I need to give you some motivation to go and see it yourself so please let me know what your thoughts are. For me however, the film is moving, poignant and I will admit I loved it!