Quick review: 4.75 stars This movie may star children and center around the experiences of childhood in Nazi Germany, but it is not for children. That said, it might be an excellent conversation piece with a teenager who is trying to wrap their head around the existence of evil in the world, how societies go from civilized to systematically barbaric, and what it means to stand up for the good in the world.
Be prepared to be deeply uncomfortable, to laugh aloud at times, and to cry- if you aren’t a robot.
Criticisms include the overdoing of a few of the more cinematic moments and the overuse of profanity. There are a few times where the cursing enhances a scene or puts the right punctuation on a moment, but there’s a lot of it that’s just not even necessary. Go see it. You’ll feel things.
I’m about to spoil the heck of of this movie because I NEED to talk about some things that I haven’t seen done this artfully in so long. It borders on genius. I’m not joking.
The opening sequence has the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” in German playing over alternating scenes of Jojo (adeptly played by Roman Griffin Davis) running headlong, ten year old boy style, towards a training weekend of the Hitler youth, heilling everyone as he passes: and footage of the near crazed responses from the crowds at Nazi gathering. The juxtaposition of the kind of Beatles mania we all know and kind of understand, with the veneration of one of history’s great monsters is both brilliant and deeply disturbing. In hind sight we look back on what happened then as unthinkable. But to a starving, angry, desperate German people– particularly those for whom the disruption of WWI left disenfranchised– Hitler really did look like a savior. He made a whole nation feel not just safe again, but powerful after a decade and a half of powerlessness.
It’s easy to say, “I would never,” but how often do we look back at our own lives and view our participation in certain trends or our inaction against the bad choices of others with regret? Hopefully, most of our regrets involve hair styles, furor for a film star/musician, or blocking the intersection when we could have let someone turn ahead of us. Our deeper regrets about abuse heaped on others (whether or not they deserve it), inaction in the face of others’ victimization, or chances not taken should inform future behavior and lead us to become if not better people, then perhaps good people.
In the course of this special training weekend we find out that Jojo as aspirations to be part of Hitler’s personal guard and become his best friend. We see that he has made Hitler his imaginary friend and he often seems to behave on a what would the Furer do?Jojo’s weekend is full of dismay at the insane actions of his peers, bullying of the highest order, and eventually a tragic accident that relegates him to the periphery of the society he has so embraced.
It is this odd man out perspective that precipitates his discovery of Elsa (played by Thomasin Mckenzie), a young Jew his mother is hiding in the wall of the bedroom once occupied by his sister. As with many non-military deaths of the time, his sister’s passing seems to have gone mostly unmarked by the government and even the neighborhood.
Jojo’s experiences as the Allies close in on Berlin reflect the denial, anger, and eventual acceptance of the people around him. There are bits of dry humor, visual humor, and the patently ridiculous– often contributed by nearly certifiable Rebel Wilson– sprinkled throughout the film, but most of these comedic bits are in the trailer.
This film, though it takes a darkly farcical approach is a deep dive into the growing pains of a child, a people, and the world.
Jojo’s mother, played by Scarlett Johansson, is in an all consuming struggle to “do what she can” to help her country, her fellow human beings, and her son come back from the brink. She is an example of those that simply held the line of decency while those around them went right off a cliff. Taika Waititi (who also plays Jojo’s imaginary Adolf) creates a Chekov’s gun out of her shoes, signifying her presence and eventually her departure in a way the pulled an audible gasp from me despite the fact that I was looking for just a moment.
The emotional back and forth Jojo experiences as his preconceived notions of the world are challenged by his forced entanglement with Elsa, the less than ideal condition of the supposedly perfect Aryan state, and his pain at his mother’s death at the hands of Nazis show how deep our prejudices can run, especially when we’ve built our beliefs about the world and ourselves upon them.
His eventual love for Elsa, his pain at the losses he’s experienced, and his willingness to open himself back up to beauty, fun, and joy are a testament to the enduring power of hope and the human capacity to change for the better.
This movie is brilliant. The story telling, the acting, the direction, and the dark humor that makes the narrative more than just another tragic tale with a somewhat happy ending all recommend it as worth the watch. Go see it. Go make other people see it so you can talk about it. Because this movie needs to be talked about by anyone who wants to make sure that such brutality doesn’t make it’s way into their nation, their neighborhood, their homes ever again.
Until next time, friends, do what you can and enjoy the show.