Jojo Rabbit: To Laugh in the Dark Times

Out of all the various villains in movies, books, and video games, Nazis are among the most common. Hopefully, I shouldn’t have to explain why. They are history’s ultimate case of ‘yeah, fuck those guys’. In terms of villains for a morally black-and-white story, Nazis are the ultimate easy pick.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. While the nazi party was certainly not a collection of good people, not all Germans supported them. There were those who blindly devoted themselves to Hitler and his reign, those who simply kept their heads down and tried to survive, and those who fought tooth-and-nail with all they had to change the country from the inside. It wasn’t just ‘Germans bad, Jews victims, America good’. In countries ruled by such dictatorships, it is so infinitely more complicated than that.

Which leads me to the topic of today’s review.

On the surface, ‘Jojo Rabbit’ just seems like a typical black comedy. ‘A little nazi boy discovers a Jewish girl in his house, antics ensue. Also, his imaginary friend is Hitler.’ On paper, it sounds hilarious but dull. Like one of those ideas that gives you a chuckle but falls apart as you try to give it substance.

But this movie is so much more than that. It perfectly balances hilarious comedy with the grim reality of the second world war. It’s a story about loss and loneliness, about overcoming preconceived notions and accepting someone for who they are, and the mental and emotional struggle of opposing beliefs that have been thoroughly indoctrinated into one’s mind. This is a gorgeous, tragic movie that I will be remembering fondly for years to come! Out of all the films I’ve seen this year, this one is easily my favorite!

This film is the best abusive relationship I’ve ever had. First, it eased me in with lots of laughs. Then it made me afraid, putting me on the edge of my seat as I wondered when it would take a turn for the worse. Then it tore my heart out. In the end, when we parted ways, we did so with great sadness, but also with optimism for the future.

Jojo is a ten-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany. Since youth, he’s had Hitler’s beliefs crammed down his throat, to the point that he’s become the dictator’s number-one fanboy and imagining Adolf as his imaginary best friend! But after an accident leaves his face scarred and his leg crippled, Jojo’s dreams of becoming a soldier in the German army are dashed. Then, when he discovers a Jewish girl hidden away in what used to be his sister’s room, Jojo’s beliefs, and the life he’s so intrinsically tied to them, start to fall apart.

Not a lot of movies can pull off a balancing act between comedy and tragedy. Most teeter too far in one direction, making the other feel forced and out of place. Even fewer still can make such a grim subject matter as WW2 and the Holocaust funny without depriving them of the weight behind the subjects. If this movie took so much as one misstep, it would have completely fallen apart!

But it didn’t. The balancing act here is flawless! It knows exactly when to sprinkle in moments of levity as to not completely bum the audience out, but it never goes so far as to sour the grim reality of the situation. Some of the jokes even help punctuate the dark tone, as you sit there and remember ‘Oh yeah, they did actually strap grenades to children and send them running at the enemy.’ Making it into a joke within the context of the film makes it more tolerable for the audience to swallow, and makes it all the more sickening once it hits their stomachs.

There are also a fair number of tear-jerking scenes in here. All of which are well-deserved and impactful! The characters are all likable and relatable enough for you to want to root for them. You spend the entire film with them, getting to know them in and out. Then, as the third act reels its head and their fates start taking a turn for the worse, it socks you right in the heart! Some characters meet deaths that are simultaneously tragic, grim, and admirable! Especially since many of them are kind, selfless people! One character’s sacrifice at the end of the film was so powerful that it nearly pushed me to sob in the theater!

This movie isn’t all darkness and sadness though. As I said, this is a black comedy. And the comedy is fucking great! It perfectly blends visual humor with dialogue humor, creating one of the funniest films I have seen in ages! It doesn’t rely on cheap quips and snarky dialogue. Each joke has a setup and a payoff. And all of them range from chuckle-inducing to straight-up hilarious! Again: while still maintaining the grim reality of the subject matter!

Oh, and have I mentioned the characters yet? Because holy shit are they phenomenal! Each and every character in this film is memorable and likable! Jojo’s arc through the movie is absolutely incredible and emotional! Watching him grow from a helpless and blindly devout nazi little boy to a mature, responsible, and kind man is one of the most cathartic and empowering arcs I have seen in a long time! Elsa’s development from a cold and calloused survivor with a bitter sense of humor to a caring older sister trying to conceal her terror and sadness is both unique and engaging! These two drive the plot along flawlessly, and their chemistry with one another is fantastic!

Some of the side characters are just as great! Jojo’s Mom is ridiculously memorable and likable, perfectly balancing a goofy and loving parental figure with a stern, powerful and determined woman. Captain Klenzendorf, aside from having the coolest name ever, perfectly subverts the audience’s expectations, revealing that his apathetic and drunken exterior hides a compassionate, nurturing, and even noble soul! Both of these characters are absolutely incredible, stealing every scene that they’re in!

And then there’s Hitler. Not only is Hitler the funniest character in the whole movie, but he’s also the perfect antagonist for Jojo’s growth! He is the physical manifestation of his doubts, pulling at him whenever he starts to push him away. All of Jojo’s preconceived beliefs, which had been ingrained into his mind since he was a boy, are made manifest with Hitler. He is simultaneously hilarious and terrible! This film perfectly captures what made Hitler such a monster in real life: he had the ability to manipulate people exceptionally well.

Now, it is worth noting that all of the characters beyond this point are basically jokes. They each exist to service punchlines. While they are very funny characters, they lack the depth that the previous characters I mentioned had. They give the film its humor, but they don’t supply the depth.

Not to mention that their accents are pretty inconsistent. None of them sound authentically German. Not even close to it. Sure, I understand that a German accent can be challenging, especially to a child. But if not for the constant nazi imagery, I would have forgotten that this takes place in Germany. None of the performances are bad, mind you. This is nothing more than a nitpick. It would’ve been a nice touch, especially considering that all the written text is in German.

Or ‘Auf Deutsch’, I should say. Otherwise, my German teachers would come and burn my apartment down. Hell, they probably still will. I wrote that down incorrectly for all I fucking know!

I could go on. I could discuss the film’s incredible visuals and its excellent use of classic songs, all of which are dubbed in German. I could go into greater detail on each actor’s stellar performance. I didn’t even mention the film’s perfect pacing! But this review is already getting super fucking long, so I’ll leave it off with that.

In case it wasn’t obvious, I’d highly recommend ‘Jojo Rabbit’. It is a fantastic film, equal parts hilarious and gripping. This is my favorite movie of the year, and any movie that hopes to topple it is going to have a hard time! This movie opened my mind and heart, then climbed right inside!

Sort of like Hitler did to Germany. Huh.

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