I’ve finally joined the Jojo Wars, which have been waging since TIFF. I don’t know if you can use ‘waging’ like that, but ‘raging’ seems too much—few seem actually mad [well, see update note below], there’s just a lot of differing critical opinion on whether or not the movie works. The fact that the reaction has been both negative and positive would seem to be proof that it does in fact work, just for some people and not for others, but here we are.
I think it’s very rare that anyone writes an objective review that actually has value to other people. Most reviews are utterly subjective and that’s fine. Subjective reviews can have value, either in that you feel the same way and someone has put it into words for you and you feel that you understand the work more deeply now, or you don’t feel the same way and you get to have that strange but useful experience where you’re forced to confront that fact that we can all watch the same movie and yet come out having watched entirely different ones. I don’t pretend that this review will not absolutely be one or the other of those for you!
But I’ve been doing some meta-analysis in my own reading, to try to find anything actually objective that’s of use. One of the features of the Jojo Rabbit discourse I’ve found is that interestingly, no one on either side seems particularly eager to die on this hill with their hot takes, which might be the most telling thing about this movie. Amazingly, after what I think we all assumed from the subject matter, there’s just seems to be something inherently mild about Jojo Rabbit. Joker it is not. I have a feeling that it might be this year’s The Shape of Water—the latest from a widely loved director, an instant crowd-pleasing awards front-runner with both fans and detractors in the critical community, that will sail through awards season buoyed on what will be dismissed by those who deem it “just not that good” as its Mainstream Appeal, despite being straight-up a heist romance about a lady who bangs a fishman/a tragicomedy in which a Māori-Jewish man plays Hitler. Honestly the mainstream can really be more wild than we give it credit for sometimes.
[Edit: Having now lived three months into the future, can report that I was wrong and the Jojo dissenters in fact became quite hateful toward it as we got deeper into awards season, the descriptions of it eventually becoming as disingenuous and outright fabricated as the way people who had only seen that fight clip from Marriage Story were describing it (which makes me suspect that many of those hating on Jojo Rabbit on Twitter also hadn’t actually seen the movie), and I wrote but ultimately deleted maybe three different essays on outrage-mongering, because man that hill just looked more awful than ever!]
Something that critics do seem to agree on is that Taika Waititi’s “anti-hate satire” is not actually strictly satire—despite admitting they understand why in 2019 a studio would be compelled to market their Nazi movie with a phrase that broadcasts the intent behind it. But while they don’t think this is it, no one can seem to agree on what satire actually is, giving me flashbacks to when this year’s Met Gala was themed on “camp.” Similarly, the only thing I now feel any clarity on regarding the definition of satire is that I do not care whether or not something fits it. Just like with the outfits, all I care about is: Do I like to to look at. Does it make me feel a thing, anything. In Jojo Rabbit’s case: Yes!
What did I like about this movie? Many things, including some things that others specifically did not, because THAT’S ART, BABY. Let’s start with what some might think is my stupidest opinion: I liked the mishmash of inaccurate German accents. I did! I liked that each actor had their own goofy spin that befit their character & performance—Scarlett Johansson’s worldly Rosie with her mysterious loyalties sounding more generically quote “European” than the others, at times even kinda French, while Sam Rockwell’s dissolute officer had a heavy inflection of those old 1940s British actors playing majors, and Rebel Wilson going the furthest of anyone into just pure hacky Comedy German befitting her role as a broad caricature. I liked this element because it underlines that this movie takes place in a fantasy world.
And not one without precedent in film: as everyone points out, the Hitler Youth camp looks very much like Nazi Moonrise Kingdom, and the whole movie carries on that similarly sunny, good-looking color scheme and use of slow motion and perfectly turned-out quaint costumes and interiors. Taika Waititi has garnered comparisons to Wes Anderson I think his whole career, definitely since Boy, and even absconded with Anderson’s frequent composer Mark Mothersbaugh for Thor: Ragnarok after Mothersbaugh loved the Anderson-y arpeggios Waititi had used in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. But while aesthetically Jojo Rabbit looks most like Moonrise Kingdom, and similarly features children as the leads, I’m really surprised I haven’t yet seen anyone discuss its similarities with Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which an overt Nazi Army analogue sweeps through a fictional European country with matchingly aesthetic but still bleak, brutal violence. The Grand Budapest Hotel took the same route as Charlie Chaplin’s own Hitler comedy The Great Dictator, using made-up names for countries that we are absolutely supposed to recognize for their real-life counterparts, while Jojo Rabbit does not distance itself quite that far. But to me, through the equally surreal appearances and accents, Waititi’s Germany read just as much as a fantasy world version of a place where very real horrors took place as Anderson’s Zubrowka.
Which is another thing I liked: I think fantasizing (by which I do not mean romanticizing) real historical traumas can be an affective and productive artistic enterprise. Genre films, your horrors and supernatural tales and high fantasies and sci-fi and the like, have long been viewed as useful ways to allow filmmakers and audiences to process things from our real lives. Honestly it’s just rather an extrapolation of what storytelling IS on a base level, but the ones that are in some way fantastical really emphasis what can be gained in the transfer. In Jojo Rabbit, the only version of Adolf Hitler we see is an unhinged imaginary friend played by a nonwhite filmmaker with Jewish heritage, who can lambast and deride this figure to his heart’s content. By making it comedic, by making it strange, the creators aren’t restricted under the weight of trying to render awful things faithfully. They can come at the trauma differently. And this approach absolutely will not work for some, definitely this is not the way everyone wants to engage with the atrocity of the Holocaust and World War II. But there are also some people that will get something out of this version that they don’t get out of Schindler’s List or Life Is Beautiful, or even The Great Dictator.
I watched The Great Dictator the day before I watched Jojo Rabbit. I liked this one better, with the exception of Chaplin’s Hynkel dancing with that globe balloon, which is utterly sublime. Both are billed as Nazi comedies, or satires if you’re feeling frisky, I guess, but after seeing them I’ve been calling them both tragicomedies, because they’re also really sad. The showing of Jojo I went to was at the kind of big old independent theater where someone comes out and does a little pre-show announcement, and I was slightly surprised when he mentioned the movie was “heartbreaking, so be ready for that!” And then I cried multiple times. These tonal shifts from comedy to tragedy are another thing that certainly doesn’t work for everyone, but once again, this did work for me. I often find suffering more moving when it’s in works with a sense of humor than ones that are purely Serious Dramas, because being able at times to just laugh at the great painful cosmic absurdity of life is what gets me through it. Black humor has a strong tradition in marginalized groups for a reason, I think. It can be strengthening. Life is full of such sorrow and evil, but as Rosie tells Jojo, we should always be dancing more, because that part is good. It can be brave and powerful, to dance in the face of death.