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Jojo Rabbit: a treasure chest of beauty (6 days late)

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

I begin my first piece of real content with reflections on Jojo Rabbit, for me the most gratifying film of 2019. I confess I have not read the source material (Caging Skies by Christine Leunens); I will let a more knowledgeable mind appropriately distribute the praise I have for Taika Waititi and his project where and when it should be given to Leunens.

In his quest to capture the world of imagination Caging Skies inspired, Waititi delivered that Nabokovia concoction that first and foremost enchants us; then, suggests the nature of the elusive moral map, visible by uncovering truths of human nature through observation and experience; and, finally, teaches us with said uncovering—not with condescension but with humble offering. It is enchanting and transportive through its innocent lens: the eyes of 10 year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler.

Jojo’s story begins toward the close of World War II, without a father, with a deceased sister, and with a tremendous mother who, to quote Jojo later in the film, has been very busy lately. He is a little lonelier than most, but has the good fortune of being able to lean on two best friends. The first, Yorki, is Jojo’s age and can be characterized as the most alarming combination of honesty and optimism one is likely to meet. The other friend, Jojo’s best friend, is many things to the well-meaning boy: father, brother, companion, imagined, and in the form of Adolf Hitler. Indeed, Jojo adapted his culture’s Big Brother and made him just so.

Waititi’s Comedic Invention

Aldous Huxley’s essay “The Importance of the Comic Genius: Showing that True Comedy, Like Genuine Tragedy, Is an Invention in the Grand Manner” makes the case for Waititi’s genius in the comedic regard. I find the characters of Yorki and imaginary Hitler to be in the vein of the “pure comedy” which Huxley endeavors to describe. Pure comedic characters are of a “size, strength, and colossal energy” not of this earth, in Huxley’s view, and they are born out of the creator’s inventive spirit which does not bind itself to an “inward spiritual reality”, far less an “earthly reality.” Though I have some suspicions about the veracity of other claims in the essay, I feel swayed and influenced by his description of the “pure comedy”; in particular its delineation from “sex, satire, and wit” and its alignment with creative elements of the “pure tragedy.”

Huxley describes purely comedic characters as follows:

There [in great comedic characters] are the strength, size, and energy of earth-born things; there is something superbly animal, something sappy, full-blooded, and earthily unselfconscious in pure comedy. We seem to be looking on at the gamboling of mastodons, the playing of young whales, the tumbling of a litter of dinosaur puppies.

Consider Yorki, given this framework. His character is marked by an “unselfconscious” and “full-blooded” honesty throughout the film. His hyper self-awareness at 10 years-old and his unabashed willingness to deliver his honest feelings and observations is, indeed, breaking the bounds of spiritual reality. His most famous line comes in the penultimate scene, after Germany has lost the war, when he tells Jojo he’s going to go home to his mother because he needs a cuddle (and what a discovery in Archie Yates, who delivers his performance with comedic timing and touch, and a contemplative, earnest air). His reflections, established in the film early on as being almost always true, serve the hyperbole of his character and the film’s tinta, but also provide some secondary moral observations. It is not a particularly profound moral truth to observe that “Jews seem pretty normal”. (A certain kind of person watches these films on the lookout for such statements and celebrates their unidimensional simplicity in accordance with their own depth of evaluation.) Instead, this observation on Yorki’s account—and several others like it—serve Waititi’s drawing of an uncertain ethical landscape where we must digest the reality of the grey characters in a world much easier for us to parse out in black and white. That anyone wearing a swastika might be a good person or a person like us or a person at all is difficult, especially in our age, when the symbol and affiliated political party are the most immediately recognized faces of evil.

Save for the name and visage of Adolf Hitler. A testament to the aforementioned difficulty are the countless objections to Jojo Rabbit on the grounds that the subject matter wasn’t taken seriously enough. Most often cited is the manner in which Adolf Hitler is portrayed: a goofy, father/brother/friend figure to Jojo. So synonymous with evil is Hitler, that the clear narrative line—which shows this Hitler as a creation of lonely Johannes’ 10 year-old brain—becomes invisible to the eye prone to misinterpretation. Much of that comedic invention is lost to the winds of ideological passion. But! For the open hearts and minds, there is daring creativity here.

At the same time we have the over-eager, window-jumping, tantrum-throwing, simple-minded Hitler, we do in fact encounter the cruel Hitler, the menacing Hitler. His entrance in the film, for example, is marked by him stalking Jojo in a haunting back and forth (with appropriate sound effects). Waititi introduces us to Hitler with a confirmation of all our previous feelings about him: he is corrupting, towering, militaristic. And only seconds later, he is reduced to that figment of Jojo’s imagination: a childish but encouraging and enthusiastic youth minister capable of communicating on Jojo’s level (and like a youth minister, he quotes the scripture of his belief system early and often). So, here is a character “not really a human being at all. [He] is an [invention] of the poet’s mind, living not in our world, but in a parallel world; similar, but not the same.” And one of the brilliant tricks of Jojo Rabbit is the dance between Jojo’s poetic world and Waititi’s.

Change in Jojo’s conscious experience is marked by his interactions with Hitler. At the outset of the story, Jojo very much relies on Hitler for camaraderie and leadership. As the meaning of Jojo’s life takes a path in opposition with Nazi doctrine, his Hitler hangouts become strained: militarism and bravado fail in the face of human connection; blind loyalty waivers when necessity demands cooperation and ideological realignment for survival; love begins to make hate and suspicion look small. Jojo’s eventual conquering of imaginary Adolf is really a defeat of the worst parts of himself and, so, there is a double or triple entendré of victory when Jojo exclaims, “Fuck you, Hitler.” and quite literally kicks him out of the house.

Waititi’s Pictures

Waititi’s storytelling happens not just in narrative and movement of characters, but also in the shots that have the quality of paintings in theme, contrast, and depth. There are many to be mentioned; however, only two will be addressed here.

The first comes toward the end of the Hitler Youth sequence, which kicks off the film. Waititi opens the movie with a Nazi/Boy Scout/Wes Anderson/Rockwell-Wilson stand-up mashup that doesn’t imply the weight and gravity of what is to come until the final activity of the day: the book burning. In his first shot hinting at the tragic, the Hitler Youth dance around, charge at, and hurl books into a bonfire. It is a black, still night with no light save for that of the fire. The Hitler Youth move around it like witches at a Sabbath. And their leader, Captain Klenzendorf, stands in profile staring contemplatively at the destructive flames.

Perhaps the power of those images in the collective subconscious is, indeed, what supplies the most weight to the scene: book burnings, Hitler Youths, degenerate leaders. These require few additional constructs for most of the audience to be already effected; however, there is more to this shot. The slow motion imagery, the dark of the night against the light of the flames, the darkness of the act against the light of the joyful youth committing it, the unclear disposition of Captain Klenzendorf, and Jojo’s timid behavior gives the scene a a grandeur and the film a starting point for the unfolding of its dramatic elements.

The picture with the most immediately primal emotion is the death of Rosie Betzler.

Nothing has yet been said of the musical gift delivered unto us by Michael Giacchino. I had a teacher at the Manhattan School of Music who outlined, as well as one can, the importance and special quality a melody can bring to a composition; the vulnerability of the soul to discover a true melody; and the courage to bare one’s heart to the world in the context of a creation destined for scrutiny. Giacchino wrote a perfect theme for young Jojo: a hopeful sequence in F major, beginning on mi and ascending to do as the unconfident and vulnerable, but nevertheless beautiful and soaring, third of a minor sixth chord at the end of its antecedent phrase, only to gently step down and resolve in the lower octave, renewed and with a more open breast, having braved the ascent and taken in some of the air. The theme, which I think reveals something very true of Jojo’s nature, leads him through his daily errands following a near disaster with the Gestapo and a fight with imaginary Hitler.

He winds through the streets and sees his hometown preparing for Allied invasion. He sees ordinary German citizens going about their lives—their vulnerability marked by the shots of elderly men and women whose efficacy in self-defense is no more than providing a boost in morale with a smile or conversation to those who have much to fear. He sees a spotless anti-Semitic poster. He sees decrepit posters for his formerly beloved Hitler Youth organization. The music makes a fluttering variation on the resolution of the Jojo theme as he spots a blue butterfly. He follows its flitting wings against the backdrop of ashy streets and it leads him to the hanging body of Rosie Betzler, whose resurrected soul, I suspect, is that butterfly. Earlier in the film, Mama Betzler made Jojo look at the hanging bodies of anti-Nazi patriots so he could learn what happens to people who “do what they can” to bring peace and tranquility and good will to all in their native land. And here, in the form of the butterfly, Rosie makes Jojo look again. This time at herself.

The music stops. Jojo is under the gallows. Rosie’s feet, bedecked in her ruby-white shoes, hang by Jojo’s head. (Rosie’s tying of Jojo’s shoes were shown as an act of love throughout the film. And her unique shoes became synonymous with her and her personality). Jojo turns and sees, immediately knowing, as the audience immediately knows, what is before him. He hugs her legs, the only part of her body he can reach. The camera shows the full lineup of hanging legs, the closest to the audience being those of Rosie Betzler. Jojo’s back is turned to us as he holds on to the body of his mother, her shoes still visible to the audience. A little flyer that reads Befreit Deutschland, Bekämpft die Partei/Free Germany, Fight the Party, has been stuck on her right leg, confirming she has been discovered as an anti-Nazi and hung for “doing what she could.” Jojo weeps into his mother’s limp body and the totality of the loss is realized by Jojo and audience alike. The shine of her character is shown through the contrast of her vibrant colors against the duller colors of her fellow conspirators: even among heroes she stands out.

Rosie Betzler and Scarlett Johansson

Rosie Betzler is the moral core of Jojo Rabbit and Scarlett Johansson delivers her with a near supernatural combination of learned skill and inherent talent.

Betzler is the kind of female character that gives form to the mythical woman Dolokhov describes in War and Peace: the heavenly being who will resurrect, purify, and elevate. This re-imagined being appears frequently in art because of their goodness; their attractiveness; their nurturing quality; their ability to lift the men who fall in love with them, the friends who rely on them, the children raised by them from the tactile world into something above. Jojo Rabbit underlines the impact of this kind of a character first by revealing the empire of her greatness; and, then, by revealing the hole she leaves when we lose her. (Examples in opera that run a similar experiment: Violetta in La Traviata, Mimì in La bohème, the titular role in Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Examples in literature: Catherine in A Farewell to Arms, Anna in Anna Karenina [in a slightly different way], Clara Copperfield in David Copperfield.)

Rosie is established as this kind of character in grand ways: she demands heroism of herself and acts it out by harboring Elsa and participating in a Nazi resistance movement; she is a master at practicing the application of love to Jojo and, functionally her second child, Elsa; she physically and verbally fights for her son’s protection with mastery of form and absence of fear, following his grenade injury. She’s found deep truths and passes them to her children with tenderness, confidence, and a nurturing poetry.

In a sequence of domestic scenes involving different pairings of Rosie, Elsa, and Jojo, we have the great pleasure of witnessing a piece of the female version of the Robert Duvall rite-of-passage speech in Secondhand Lions. Asked by Elsa in candlelit intimacy what it means to be a woman, Rosie first gives an account that is jocularly boastful and mysterious: going to Morocco, toying with lovers, looking tigers in the eye. Ultimately, these are preludes which stand as examples of her playfulness and unique boldness. Eventually, she declaims her proverbial understanding of the question: a woman trusts without fear. Asked how by Elsa, a girl whose conception of trust has been shattered, she replies, “You trust.” And the sincere touch with which she communicates this to Elsa compels all who have heard the words to reflect on them. And we smile in the reflection when she confirms all of her daring adventures, save for looking a tiger in the eye.

She has the eyes of an artist, seeing the world with the pleasure of a child even in the tragic extremity of her circumstances. She races Jojo on foot and on bicycles. She pranks Jojo. She believes in the erstwhile purity of his soul—prior to the Third Reich’s influence on it—and, in one of the most psychologically complex and affecting scenes in the film, rediscovers it through role-playing as his father and dancing with him. She drops little hints to him about the potential for beauty and meaning in the world through love, dance, and doing what one can. Her childlike personality is captured in an endearing juxtaposition walking along the river with Jojo: he remains on the sidewalk, going on very seriously about the state of Germany in the war, while she listens and amuses herself walking on top of the balustrade. And the part she plays in Waititi’s tribute to Life is Beautiful, aligns her with that ebullient soul of Roberto Orefice (played to great effect by Roberto Benigni who, one would think, greatly influenced Waititi’s piece).

It is difficult to separate Johansson from Betzler and Betzler from Johansson: who is casting the spell on us?

Johansson has an immense talent for the camera: a soothing voice which finds warm resonance in the figure of a mother; an athletic, youthful physicality and movement which gives Rosie a commanding and girlish character; the trademark Johansson facial features—big blue eyes, beautiful lips, high cheek bones, and a strong jaw—which give Rosie an electricity. This electricity imbues Betzler in such a way that her playful boasting to Elsa about the kind of woman she once was and the bravery she exhibits in the face of the Third Reich is believable to the point of it being expected, necessary.

Johansson’s most important gift is her artistic vision which allows for her physical attributes—so dominating on film—to blossom into something beyond a beautiful image. Johansson has always had an uncanny ability for portraying tenderness and has the ability to convey it to friends, lovers, children, and beyond. Of course, as I write this, I immediately think of the full panorama of traits that have forever been native to her performances. She is the ultimate actress because she has the ultimate necessity for acting: to receive information and react to it organically through the psychological processes of her characters. And the foundation for the seeming reality of these processes is the ability to imagine, embody, and accurately interpret a character: that which presents itself to her on the page, she receives with the same open heart she brings to the set. And underneath that foundation is a personality which perceives humanity with a deep understanding and willingness to accept the totality of human truths. This is the springboard for artistry. It is the double helix of this artistry and the Betzler character that form the upper back where the atlas of Jojo Rabbit rests.

Waititi’s Unbelievable Closing Sequence

A great book, they say, imbues every page and sometimes every sentence with a profundity works of lesser value sometimes struggle to find in the whole of their opus. The closing sequence, following the post-Rosie death montage of Jojo and Elsa living and surviving together, has this characteristic. 20+ minutes of comedy, tragedy, character transformation, heroism, humanity, love, poetry, music, etc. etc. Like the whole film, I cannot possibly sing the praises of all the elements worthy of a song. Great works of art are too complex to behold in one sitting (hence Nabokov’s charge that great readers are, in fact, re-readers) and, I daresay, too complex to discuss in full for one blog post. The following are some of the highlights.

Jojo discovers Yorki as the allied invasion begins and the two of them lay out the state of affairs (after Yorki accidentally blew up a building with a rocket launcher): Yorki informs Jojo about Germany’s imminent destruction, Russia’s terrifying army, the ideological paradox of Japan being the Aryan State’s only remaining ally, and Hitler’s suicide. Jojo outlines the domestic situation between himself and Elsa, much to Yorki’s satisfaction, and the both of them pay respect to the loss of Rosie.

Destruction reigns down on the German town as Jojo and Yorki find themselves in the grips of Reba Wilson’s comic and horrifying character, who sends some Hitler Youth to suicide bomb the Allies before she herself wields a gargantuan machine gun at the invaders—only to be blown to smithereens five seconds later. The blast that kills her disorients Jojo. He witnesses the following in a slow-motion daze, accompanied by a vocal rending of Giacchino’s Jojo theme.

Jojo looks around and sees his town, now a war zone, being defended by all his fellow citizens: soldiers, adult men, adult women, Hitler Youths (younger and older than himself), and Captain Klenzendorf. Captain Klenzendorf, who earlier revealed to Jojo the insane attire he was prepared to fight and die with (a red feather on his helmet, a red cape, a decorated Thompson-like machine gun), arrives in an outfit evoking a centuries-deep nationalism that runs beyond Nazi party fealty. The demonstration of his character in this regard was established by his saving of Elsa from the Gestapo (revealing him to understand humanity on a more profound level than we might have at first suspected). Captain Klenzendorf’s willingness to sacrifice himself for his country in spite of its evil suggests much to be mulled over: love of one’s home, moral choices in perilous circumstances, the nature of heroism, and the full scope of the death of Germanic tradition beyond just the Nazi party. Captain Klenzendorf plants himself firmly, his lover (played by Alfie Allen) standing behind him with a gramophone, and turns toward Jojo, providing him with a look and wink of encouragement, cigarette in mouth—not to fight, but that things will be ok. To do this in the face of Hell says something about the divinity within Captain Klenzendorf (whose great moment is still to come). And this image is another of Waititi's tremendous paintings.

Jojo’s melodic theme reaches its apex at the look from the captain, and descends as Jojo absorbs the full force of the war’s impact: the deaths of his fellow neighbors, the desolation of his home. Waititi shows German men, women, and children, some previously of a comic and warming disposition, dead in the rubble. Again, we are challenged to examine the overwhelming loss on the side we perhaps too easily dismissed as universally evil; however, I want to make sure to note that while this may partially be the effect on us, it is the more basic human experience that we will hopefully absorb for contemplation and understanding. The examination and story of the soul of the individual and the soul of the community in the grip of destruction—no matter the contemporary, historical, and/or symbolic significance—is what our eyes and hearts are meant to receive and ponder.

Jojo finds a place to hide as the battle rages around him. When he emerges, the Allied Forces have taken over the town and are corralling German forces away from the general populous. Jojo is rounded up (he’s wearing a Nazi uniform) and is put among other beaten captives, who include Captain Klenzendorf. It’s made immediately clear the Allies are summarily executing this group.

What transpires between Jojo and Klenzendorf is so monumental, I do not want to cheapen it with any descriptive or interpretive elements. It’s worth watching the movie just for this scene where the combined genius of Christine Leunens, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, and Roman Griffin Davis make for one of the best executed, most stirring moments these eyes have ever seen. Klenzendorf’s final moments are marked with a meaningful parallel between Jojo Rabbit and Life is Beautiful.

But it isn’t over. Jojo makes his way home—having a brief but memorable run-in with the maternally yearning Yorki—and is confronted with a rather difficult prospect. Jojo has lost his father, his sister, his mother, his hometown, his ideology, and Captain Klenzendorf. And, now, he is faced with losing his first love, Elsa, the Jewish girl Rosie protected in the Betzler home. Elsa, merely by existing, cracked the shield of Nazi doctrine that enveloped Jojo. Elsa was womanly, feeling, challenging, beautiful, and Jojo fell in love with her almost at the outset. Not to mention, he and Elsa depended on each other for survival. Jojo hesitates and lies about the outcome of the war and battle: he doesn’t want to lose her.

But all of the good Rosie laid down floods the heart of young Jojo, her memory existing as a kind of Holy Spirit that will guide his moral compass and behavior: he frees Elsa. There are no less than five additional representations of Rosie's lasting impact on her boy. The first comes when Jojo looks into the mirror and repeats one of Rosie’s enduring messages: “Jojo Betzler. Ten and a half years-old. Today, just do what you can.” The second, is Jojo acting out Rosie’s tender shoe-tying ritual on Elsa, before he leads her out into a post-Third Reich world. The third is a reprise of a conversation Rosie and Jojo had before he left the house following his grenade injury. This time he delivers the wink: “Is it dangerous out there?” asks Elsa. “Extremely,” replies Jojo. The fourth is the slightly androgynous look Jojo has at the end of the film. No longer dressed in a masculine Hitler Youth uniform or a boy’s cap, these clothes are bright, a little large, and lacking sharp angles. It has the visual effect of this new Jojo as the embodiment of his soul's absorption of all the good left behind by his mother. The fifth is acted out between Elsa and Jojo. “Dancing is for people who are free,” says Rosie, earlier in an outdoor adventure with Jojo. And Jojo, free from the narrow world-view which shaped his identity, and Elsa, free from the threat of facing her own death with every waking moment, dance. Thus, Jojo’s metamorphoses is complete, Rosie’s purpose is fulfilled, and Elsa has a chance at life.

Waititi, in tribute to another one of his artistic influences, leaves us with the following Rainer Maria Rilke poem:

Let everything happen to you

Beauty and terror

Just keep going

No feeling is final

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I myself have a feeling of finality in the case of this blog. I think I covered a good chunk of the territory in Jojo Rabbit that struck me as particularly special. Some things I omitted: a discussion on the fusion of drama and comedy in works of great genius; a deeper dive into the character of Captain Klenzendorf and Sam Rockwell’s portrayal; the lyrics of Jojo's theme; the performance of Thomasin McKenzie in the role of Elsa; Elsa’s elevation at the hands of Rosie; an analyses of the dinner scene between Jojo and Rosie as well as the Gestapo scene (both of which could be blog posts unto themselves). Jojo Rabbit has not once failed to move me and I watched it several times before endeavoring to write about it here. During the course of this composition, I rewatched a few more times for note-taking and even on the last round of review I was moved to those heights where a great work continuously transports us. I hope all who watch Jojo Rabbit will discover not only the beauty and truth so striking to me, but also beauties and truths that speak specially to you.

Sources of Inspiration:



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