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‘Jojo Rabbit’: Overthrowing Tyranny With Laughter

Spoiler Warning: Major parts of the Jojo Rabbit will be discussed, including a major character’s death. Read at your own risk.

One doesn’t typically associate Nazi Germany and the Holocaust with the idea of laughter. But what better way to depower a tyrannical leader than to make his logic seem laughable? A variety of films choose to view World War II through a child’s perspective, from The Book Thief to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Contrasting childlike innocence with the darkness of war and the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany emphasizes the horrors that occurred there, as well as providing an open-mindedness that would be less believable if the story was told from the perspective of an indoctrinated adult. In Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi utilizes satirical humor, exaggerated caricatures, and juxtaposition to present the balance between joy and tragedy and dampen Hitler’s connotation with fear through its opposite force: laughter.

Jojo Rabbit is full of dark humor and larger-than-life personalities, with the snarky jokes used to both bring light to the harsh content as well as emphasizing emotionally impactful moments that are interspersed throughout the movie. We are introduced to the world of Jojo Rabbit through the eyes of 10-year-old Johannes Kepler, also known by his titular nickname. Due to his young age, he doesn’t understand the full gravity of World War II. Instead, he is an avid member of the Hitler Youth and views Hitler as an inspirational figure. That is, until he meets Elsa, a Jewish girl his mother, Rosie, has been hiding in his late sister Inge’s room.

The film utilizes its exaggerated visual style to mock the Nazi’s beliefs, pointing out various flaws in an increasingly comical manner. Hitler, as a figment of Jojo’s imagination, works as an over-the-top imaginary friend, removing all intimidating characteristics of the historical figure. He’s also defeated by being kicked out a window by a boy with a bad leg, reducing his power even more by being defeated so easily. Stephen Merchant as a Gestapo officer towering over Captain Klenzendorf, an officer with his own moral ambiguities, would normally be used to demonstrate the Gestapo’s power and fear tactics over the people, but Merchant is comically taller, removing fear from the situation by representing it through a ridiculous image. Having young boys like Jojo and Yorki handle missile launchers and grenades is a historically inaccurate fact and one used for comic relief, such as Yorki dropping a missile and blowing up a building. This simultaneously highlights the actual tragedy of World War II, with young children being exposed to the horrors of war before they’re old enough to fully process what is happening to them.

Jojo Rabbit is marketed as a comedy drama, equal parts snide comments on discrimination and heartfelt moments of acceptance and coping with grief.  Most of the scenes are lit in half-shadow, with clear, distinct lines representing the film’s balance of comedy and drama, as well as the character’s ability to choose either good or evil. Whenever Elsa is in the secret room, a realistically darker space, she’s actually lit in some of the brightest scenes of the film, implying that the lighting is more of a moral suggestion rather than a realistic lighting choice. There’s a lot of bright color choices despite the darker atmosphere (green in Inge’s room and red on Klenzendorf during the battle), reinforcing the high-contrast, conflicting tones that the movie contains.

The scene where Jojo stabs Elsa is an excellent example of Jojo Rabbit’s use of highly contrasted color and lighting, with both elements being utilized to demonstrate Jojo’s conflicted morality. Jojo has just returned home after finding his mother, Rosie, had been hanged for treason. He enters the frame draped in shadow and dark clothes, with his back to the camera. The shadows mirror his anger and grief and follow him through the scene as he starts to walk towards Elsa. In contrast, Elsa is wearing lighter clothes and reading in front of a light, bright-colored wall. Unlike Jojo, she’s in a more positive state of mind, more hopeful after being temporarily free of the hidden cupboard and unaware of Rosie’s death. 

It’s only once the two meet that both are cast in half-shadow. But Jojo doesn’t stab Elsa in the heart. No matter how upset he is, he isn’t vengeful to the point of murder. As indicated by the half-light, he’s still somewhat good. Even the background music sounds conflicted. This inner goodness is also implied through the teal-colored shirt he has, with the collar being contrasted underneath the dark jacket. Meanwhile, Elsa shares Jojo’s grief in the form of a half-shadow. Her initial smile disappears once she’s noticed something’s gone wrong, and she doesn’t stop the knife from going in, despite having been shown to be much faster and stronger than Jojo in previous scenes. By being stabbed, she accepts that Jojo blames her for his mother’s death. And there, in the stark contrast of darkness and light that makes up a majority of the film’s screen time, do both characters connect.

Jojo Rabbit is about reevaluating our perspectives on life, getting rid of our silly judgmental attitudes, and accepting those around us. As shown by Jojo’s struggle between what’s truly good and evil, it can be difficult to realize that what we’ve been taught may not be an accurate depiction of the world. And we will make mistakes while attempting to figure out what we truly believe. But, as the movie suggests, life is worth living and connections are worth forging. And when we do finally find love and acceptance, we’ll do a little dance to celebrate.

Sianna Swavely is a Cinema, Television, and Media Production and Professional Writing major, with a minor in Communication Studies. In her free time, she can be found video editing, playing the piano, or watching Youtube videos while pretending to study.
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