By Kurt Jensen
NEW YORK (CNS) — As with many satires, the makers of “Jojo Rabbit” (Fox Searchlight) don’t care much whether an audience likes their film — or understands all of it.
In this case, the latter option is not likely. New Zealand-born writer-director Taika Waititi knows how to jolt viewers. He plays not only a child-friendly Adolf Hitler, but one who’s also a slightly fey Fuhrer.
But that’s not his point. He’s showing instead, often in a deadpan way, the deadly consequences of blind loyalty to nationalism and political ideologies that marginalize entire categories of humanity as “the other” — and the singular evil of inculcating children with hateful beliefs.
These are all, in the context of World War II, matters of undisputed historical fact. Whether a contemporary viewer finds parallels to actions and pronouncements in current politics will be a matter of individual interpretation based on experience and outlook. Waititi isn’t, it should be said, making those connections explicitly, nor is he in any way trivializing the Holocaust.
Instead, “Jojo Rabbit” has a broadly-drawn humanistic theme, and viewers who stick with it will see that Waititi, whose screenplay is adapted from Christine Leunens’ 2004 novel “Caging Skies,” assumes the intelligence of moviegoers and, in the end, doesn’t flinch from the horrors of war and prejudice.
Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old boy in Germany in the final year of the global conflict. His father, away in the service, may have deserted, since Jojo sometimes hears comments about his dad being a coward.
He lives with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), and is a very enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth, whose leaders have indoctrinated him with all manner of wrongheaded ideas, including about Jews. (He thinks they smell like cabbage.)
Jojo is so filled with these notions that he has adopted, as his imaginary friend, none other than Hitler himself. As played by Waititi, Jojo’s version of the dictator is perpetually cheerful and given to dispensing, sometimes at the dinner table, life lessons about mothers, and how to deal with what others perceive as the child’s cowardice. He is Jojo’s projection of his own emotional needs.
Rosie, although she doesn’t seem to mind Jojo’s Hitler Youth enthusiasm, turns out to be the moral center. She’s been quietly distributing antiwar pamphlets, at the risk of her life. When she and Jojo see five locals who have been hanged in the town square for treason, he asks her what they’d done, and she replies, “What they could.”
When Jojo is mutilated in a grenade accident during a Hitler Youth field-training exercise, he is reduced to putting up posters, which leaves him free time to explore his house. There he finds that his mother, for quite some time, has been hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), who was a friend of Jojo’s late sister, Inge.
Elsa is exceedingly fearless, especially around Jojo, and enjoys challenging his misguided assumptions. He finds himself falling in love with her — in the way a small boy might conceive of doing so — and helps her avoid a visit from the Gestapo.
As Russian soldiers invade and Elsa destroys his addled worldview, Jojo eventually has to decide whether it’s been worth his many escapes from reality to have Hitler so firmly embedded in his judgments. Harsh realities thunder in, including for Rosie.
None of this constitutes casual viewing. Every line of dialogue carries weight. “Jojo Rabbit” pretty much exemplifies the expression “not to all tastes.” But viewers interested in challenging, thoughtful fare will be left with much to consider.
The film contains mature themes, images of the aftermath of executions, anti-Semitic dialogue, a single rough term and fleeting crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.