Edwin Arnaudin: Jojo Rabbit, the latest comedy from Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok; What We Do in the Shadows), centers on the titular Hitler Youth (Roman Griffin Davis, outstanding in his big-screen debut) as he experiences significant growing pains at the end of WorldWar II. Upon exiting our press screening, I believe your first words were something like, “That made my little German heart so happy.” Mind elaborating on that reaction, fräulein?
Kristina Guckenberger: With a last name like mine and five years of studying the language (and a brief student exchange in Dresden), I’m a sucker for all things German. Add an adorably affecting (albeit deeply misguided) blond boy, a wildly eccentric portrayal of Hitler as his imaginary friend (played by Waititi himself) and a fantastic soundtrack of pop classics sung in German — including my favorite, “Heroes/Helden” by David Bowie — and I’m sold. What was your reaction to Jojo?
EA: I’ve had complete faith in Waititi since Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and from Jojo‘s outsetfelt predisposed to love it. Sure enough, from the opening credits montage featuring archival footage of excited Nazis cued to the Fab Four’s “Komm, gib mir deine Hand,” in turn equating the fever of Hitler support to a particularly nasty ancestor of Beatlemania, I knew we were in smart satirical hands. Did the humor work for you?
KG: Definitely. I’d categorize this film as a broad dark comedy — not the slapstick Hitler satire a lot of people seem to think it is — with its humor deriving from witty, original writing. I found myself legitimately laughing out loud in the theater and tearing up during the most emotional moments — a feat, considering this is a Nazi-mocking film led by an unknown child actor. Did you find the balance of comedy and drama to be as effective as I did?
EA: To quote our beloved Col. Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds, “That’s a bingo!” Crucial to that success are Waititi’s fresh spins on Holocaust and coming-of-age — excuse me, bildungsroman — narratives.
KG: Yes! I love a good bildungsroman! It’s an important narrative that catalogs the tumult of boyhood — and childhood more broadly — and the agonizing end of it. Watching the world through Jojo’s eyes feels incredibly intense, as most childhood experiences seem larger than life, more vivid and more life-affirming (or hope-stealing). Waititi’s unmistakable respect for coming-of-age stories is what sets this film apart for me.
EA: Some critics who haven’t been charmed by Jojo Rabbit liken it to The Book Thief, which I consider the epitome of a boilerplate Holocaust drama and a horrible comparison to what’s being accomplished here.
Pretty much all of the expected genre components are present — many of them stemming from the consequences of Jojo’s mom Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, back in top form) harboring a teenage Jew named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, proving Leave No Trace was no fluke) — but presented with a wink that makes these familiar details more humorous and touching than the typical dry, soul-stabbing depiction of this horrible point in human history. Waititi hits similar comedic highs as the best parts of The Producers, but with a level of heart and humanity missing from Mel Brooks’ agenda. It’s an incredible feat of highwire artistry that results in a rare emotionally — and cinematically — complete film.
KG: I couldn’t agree more. As in 1967, when Brooks’ film was released, I not only think it’s OK to laugh at Nazis, I think it’s vital given our contemporary political landscape. The recent rise of extremism and anti-Semitism globally (and more specifically in America) only furthers the need to bring attention to the horrors of the Holocaust. Comedy serves as a smart (and historically popular) vehicle for addressing complex issues because it teaches audiences while making them laugh. It’s crucial to educate people on the importance of where past totalitarian regimes and racist tactics have ended up, so we can take action in the hopes of not repeating it.
EA: It sounds like Waititi’s goofy yet still occasionally terrifying take on der Führer works as well for you as it does for me.
KG: It does, though I think it’s important to distinguish that this film portrays Hitler as Jojo’s imaginary friend, so he’s quite literally the construction of a 10-year-old boy’s creativity. In this sense, he reads much more like a caricature and is hardly shown as a real human figure. When Jojo begins to peel back the layers of his hateful ideology, however, he begins to distance himself from his fabrication. He no longer sees Hitler as this omnipotent, friendly being — he’s an ineffective, laughable fraud. I think this device smartly addresses the widespread ignorance and ludicrousy of the Nazi ideology, especially when it’s set next to Jojo’s fervent belief (and eventual rejection) of it.
On a related note, I’ve noticed that a lot of the conversation surrounding the film focuses on the question of whether it’s right to humanize Nazis. Sam Rockwell’s character, Captain Klenzendorf, immediately comes to mind. He’s very clearly a person who’s part of a “club” that he doesn’t fully seem to believe in, but benefits from nonetheless. This characterization can be polarizing for some people, but I think it keenly acknowledges the fact that the Nazis were actual people, not fictitious Boogie Men. It reminds us that the danger of extremism is not only plausible, it’s a very real, human problem that we must pay attention to. What do you think?
EA: The film speaks to the modern day with blazing relevance and is as convincing a cinematic wake-up call as I’ve seen post-2016 outside of BlacKkKlansman. Your point of Jojo Rabbit offering a reminder to smash reemerging cycles of hate is spot-on, and the joy delivered via its messages of love and true acceptance across perceived lines of separation are downright inspirational. It could very well spark a revolution.
KG: Much of that power stems from the film’s exemplary young cast. McKenzie’s Elsa mirrors an Anne Frank archetype, but she emits enough bite to make her feel like a fresh, fully fleshed-out character. She personifies the pain of feeling (and quite literally being) invisible to a brutally cruel world without coming off as tragic or saccharine. Elsa challenges Jojo in a way that he’s never encountered before when she points out that he’s not actually a Nazi, he’s just a “10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.” That exchange upends Jojo’s worldview and, more importantly, gives Elsa a chance to make peace with her dire situation.
The same is true with Davis. He manages to make you root for Jojo, not in spite of his indoctrinated ways, but because of how he’s able to navigate through them. He brings an enigmatic charisma to the role that colors the entire film with such sensitivity and authenticity that it makes the whole experience feel special.
EA: They’re a delightful pair whose dynamic plays out with an honesty that makes Jojo’s transformation wholly believable. Looking like a young Nick Frost, Archie Yates also warrants praise as Jojo’s clumsy friend Yorki, whose deadpan innocence steals practically all of his scenes. But for me, the film’s glue is Johansson’s Rosie, a secret rebel who miraculously holds herself together while hiding a fugitive and slyly steering her son back to the light. Between this and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, I wouldn’t be surprised if ScarJo earns an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
KG: Yes! She brings a surprising soulfulness to a film that begins with such broad belly laughs. There’s a scene in which Jojo and Rosie dance in the kitchen that feels particularly moving. He’s angry with her that his father is not there, so she puts soot on her face to make a beard and instructs Jojo to stand on a chair while they sweetly dance. It’s an incredibly intimate portrayal of parental love and sacrifice that quite nearly exploded my dark heart. Not to mention that, visually, the scene is absolutely stunning. The entire film is, for that matter. I’ve characterized the look of Jojo as the bittersweet, big-hearted Nazi baby of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and the aforementioned Quentin Tarantino masterpiece. Did you enjoy the lush set design against the backdrop of brutally heavy themes as well?
EA: The stylized scenery definitely helps soften the blow. As with those forebears and likely inspirations, a somewhat heightened reality makes Jojo Rabbit all the more potent without letting its rampant creativity dilute the film’s thematic resonance. I don’t know that I’m ready to pronounce it the year’s best film thus far, but it’s currently in my Top 5 and possibly my Top 3.
KG: I’m right there with you. Jojo Rabbit proves that you don’t need a deadly serious film to explore deadly serious themes and, ultimately, I think that’s what makes it feel exceptional. It’s equal parts humor and heart, colored by a tragic turn of events in the second half that felt like a sucker punch to the emotions. I was wrecked and touched and entertained in nearly every way, and I encourage everyone who’s interested to give this glorious work a chance.