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Souped Nazi

Kimberley French/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

It’s not that we didn’t think he had it in him. But it’s a sad reality that not everyone can make the jump from the minors to the majors. There are plenty of movie directors who can handle $5 million brilliantly but who choke under the pressure of $10 million, or $100 million. Or they can handle the pressure but not the studio. Or they can handle the studio but not the actors. Or they can do it, but only as a controlled implosion. It’s very, very rare for someone to not only do it all, but to make it look easy.

That director is Taika Waititi. Who would have guessed? After a few small comedic movies set firmly in his home country of New Zealand, he was handed the keys to a major franchise with “Thor: Ragnarok.” He managed to freshen up an entire superhero genre by making it funny, racially inclusive and as well-paced as any golden-era Hollywood production. And with “Jojo Rabbit,” he has surpassed himself, with an antifascist love story told from the point of view of a little Nazi.

Whether or not 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a Nazi is the question. As it begins, he is practicing his salutes in the mirror to prepare for a weekend Hitler Youth training camp run by Captain K (Sam Rockwell) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson, very good in a small but crucial part). As part of the training, he is ordered to kill a rabbit. To his humiliation, he cannot. In order to redeem himself, he steals a live hand grenade, and to no one’s surprise blows himself up.

This saves his life, although he doesn’t appreciate it. His mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) must keep him out of school while the scars on his face and leg heal. To occupy his time, he is sent on errands for Captain K, while his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates, possibly the most naturally charming child actor ever filmed) remains in the army. While Jojo moves around the unnamed German city, sometimes with his mother but often alone, he starts noticing the world around him. And then he makes a discovery that changes everything.

In this critic’s opinion, it should not be spoiled, although this means it’s very difficult to explain why Thomasin McKenzie is in the movie or how well she handles her role. At almost every moment she is alone, hungry and scared, and dealing with someone worse than a wild animal which can be fought or an adult who can be manipulated. She is dealing with a child, and one who has swallowed some hideous racism whole.

It’s important to emphasize Jojo is a small boy acting like one. He pouts and cries and frets and screams and bosses everyone and draws with colored pencils. This is incredibly unusual onscreen. Mr. Davis might be a little stiff in some parts, but when it comes to the crucial emotional moments he does wonderfully. And you can’t fault the kid for being a little out of his depth sometimes; he is, wonderfully, acting his own age. As the movie's publicity makes amply clear, he speaks to Hitler (Mr. Waititi himself) as his imaginary friend. The scene where Hitler sympathizes with him about being unable to kill the rabbit is absolutely astonishing. It's hardly possible to make a child's thought process and rationalizations more visible. This Hitler gives advice, complains about his food and clothes and then slowly changes in importance as Jojo starts growing up. The real adults around him don’t forget he is a child, either, even when they have him out collecting scrap metal for the war effort or tying his shoelaces together as a prank. When Jojo is told he is not a Nazi, merely a little boy who wanted to dress up and hang out with his friends, you believe the person telling him. But you can also see why Jojo might not.

So the risk is Jojo might not decide for himself. Yorki gets swallowed by the machine and toward the end – more of which later – describes the most appalling horror in a direct and childish way, which makes it even more horrible. The slow changes of how Hitler appears to Jojo over the course of the film, and in relation to Ms. McKenzie's character, is a fascinating psychological study in its own right. Rosie, as a mother, is just wonderful: caring, brave, charming, funny and very aware of what her little man is and is not capable of. Ms. Johansson is especially outstanding in the scene where she smears ashes on her face to copy her late husband’s beard and screams at Jojo, who has shouted at her for missing his dad.

The visual language of the movie is heavily borrowed from the works of Wes Anderson, which for a child-centered movie is oddly appropriate. (Mr. Waititi also wrote the script, adapted from a book by Christine Leunens.) The aural language of the movie steals directly from “A Knight’s Tale” in its use of completely suitable but wholly anachronistic songs. The German version of The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” over the opening credits’ shots of Nazi rallies is an inspired decision.

But then there is the problem of Captain K. He’s a drunk, blind in one eye, who has been demoted to working with the children of the ruined city in the coming fight against the Russian and American armies. Stephen Merchant, as an agent for the Gestapo, has one major scene that is both extremely funny and extremely frightening, with a wonderful shot of him curling his full height down to look Mr. Rockwell in the face. And how Mr. Rockwell’s face must work to describe the complexity of this part. It’s made age-appropriately obvious that he is together with his junior officer (Alfie Allen in a nearly wordless role) and that perhaps this not-so-secret has contributed to his career humiliation. But no matter how much eyeliner he wears, or how much he is willing to put himself out for Jojo on Rosie’s behalf, he is still a Nazi. Making such a fuss of his humanity, despite his final scene, is perhaps the film’s only misstep.

No such nuance is shown to Fraulein Rahm, mother of 18, who in the horrific final battle scene is shown sending children to their deaths. This battle, which is all the more unexpected for its realistically unsparing violence, has Jojo in the middle of it, with tears in his eyes and his ears ringing from the explosions. It’s awful. It’s a brilliant lesson.

But it’s also what will give most parents pause about showing this movie to their 10-year-old children (well, there is some swearing and plenty of racism and ableism, but well within context). To show the true horror of where hatred leads is the entire point of “Jojo Rabbit” and on that note it succeeds a little too well. The scene where Jojo follows the butterfly in the town square had the whole cinema sobbing in shock. There are a great many parents who will hesitate at showing this on family movie night because they do not want to give their kids screaming nightmares.

This is, of course, the whole point. Childhood innocence is a wonderful thing. But adults who want to raise their children well must be prepared to crack that innocence and let their values in. The bigots and Nazis, the misogynists and anti-Semites, the pick-ups artists and racists and homophobes of every stripe show children’s tender feelings no such consideration. To fight evil you must be aware of it. To fall in love you must understand your own feelings. And to dance in the sunlight you must know what it feels like to be hiding in the dark.

The current moment is a very dark time. “Jojo Rabbit” is exactly the right movie to shine a little light into it. It stands against hatred and for humanity when too many people try to sit on a fence or pretend that the current political moment has nothing to do with them. It shows what happens when eyes are closed to the consequences of bigotry. And it gives everyone with hatred in their heart the chance to redeem themselves.

There won’t be a more important movie this year. And no one will underestimate Mr. Waititi again.


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