Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Taika Waititi; based on Caging Skies by Christine Leunens
Cinematographer: Mihai Mălaimare Jr.
Producer: Carthew Neal, Taika Waititi, Chelsea Winstanley
by Jon Cvack
I’m confident that Nazi films will be around forever. In an acting class, I once said I was fascinated by Nazis, failing to clarify what I meant before making that statement. Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1973) and Richard Evans’ Third Reich Trilogy (2003-2008) are two of the most terrifying books that I’ve ever read in my life. To learn how a regime came to power by using a combination of racism, nationalism, and the system itself to rise to power and attempt to destroy entire groups of people. There’s a quote I keep seeing on Facebook about how the rise of fascism is due to a breakdown in thirds - a third supports, a third opposes, and the final third watches as it shifts, failing to see the significance.
I no longer feel all that embarrassed to compare to Trump to the rise of fascism. Of course he’s not a brutal dictator, but he is showing how a more politically subtle and calculating figure could rise to power by using our system. Yes both sides pack the courts with their own ideology, but the right wing Federalist Society has a very conservative position on most issues and there’s nothing comparable in power to that. Every single Supreme Court Justice appointed by a Republican has come from the Federalist Society. Currently, there’s a case before the conservative court about the government’s ability to regulate the environment. The more conservative justices, the likelier it is that far right positions could be made precedent and prevent congress from enacting any form of law. Combine that with a court that has made both liberal and conservative presidential power stronger, and it could lead to a disproportionate dynamic between branches.
However unlikely, it’s not impossible to imagine and it’s what makes the rise of the Third Reich all the more alarming. It is about one third that tried to fight and make a difference while the other third ignored them - hiding themselves or others in closets and abandoned streets, hoping to avoid detection, unsure when it would ever end.
JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a member of the Hitler Youth. He’s a klutzy kid, though hopes to be a great Nazi soldier. He’s encouraged by his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) who’s straight from The Office but somehow not distracting. JoJo’s cared for by his mom Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) who’s the type of mom-as-friend that sticks its claws into your heart. They’ve lost contact with JoJo’s father who was last head at the Italian front, now left alone with each other. Taking place in the heart of Berlin, they’re relatively safe compared to the rest of Europe, assisted with JoJo’s indoctrinated insight toward Germany’s campaign.
At camp, JoJo meets his drill instructor Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) who’s a famous soldier who lost an eye in battle, now training Hitler’s future soldiers. It all felt so odd at first, as I wasn’t sure if the movie was a satire of Nazi Germany, or attempting to make odd comedy out of a horrible moment in history. Then during a grenade experiment, as the boys throw potato mashers into a field and JoJo runs off through the woods, straight toward the grenade which explode and the film shits into a disturbing sequence demonstrating JoJo was severely fucked up and it’s not at all some cartoon or satire, at least not entirely. It’s comparable to The Death of Stalin combined with a Wes Anderson style, told entirely from a child’s perspective.
Waititi opted for an unfamiliar though historically accurate rendition of Germany; abandoning the common pale blues, grays, and browns and instead embracing vibrant yellows, greens, blues, and reds; creating a bizarre world which felt welcoming while simultaneously orchestrating mass death. At first it doesn’t work, feeling like what some feared in keeping the content too loose, and then, once he discovers the Jewish girl in the closet, Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), it all comes together.
The Last Metro (1980), Schindler’s List (1993), and Life is Beautiful (1997) all contain some rendition of this story. It is the ultimate horror of characters gambling with capture and certain brutal death; an idea so far from America that we as a culture fail to comprehend the dynamic. For as much as the country was founded on slavery and destruction of Native Americans, white Americans themselves have never dealt with such levels of government terrorism and uncertainty. It makes Rosie’s performance all the stronger, in realizing that her attitude is all a facade, and that in fact she’s willing to fight to the death to bring down the Nazis.
Leading up to one of the most cinematically heart-breaking scenes, Waititi provides intimate moments between JoJo and his mother, often with JoJo sitting down in close up, leaving the left or right frame empty, and in close up we see Rosie’s red shoes feet dance into frame. Somewhere between that, Rosie and JoJo come across a public hanging of local members of the resistance. Later, JoJo finds his mother leaving subversive paper messages around town; realizing that his mother is both protecting his alleged enemy, and attempting to overthrow his philosophy. The Gestapo soon end up at their house where Inge appears, pretending to be JoJo’s dead sister in order to prevent them from finding his mom. Captain Klenzendorf soon enters and they ask for Inge’s passport, leading Elsa to Inge’s old desk, digging through and we’re left wondering the chances of escape. She removes the passport and Klenzendorf checks it, asking for Inge’s birthday, Elsa responds, seemingly correct and Klenzendorf leads the Gestapo out. Moments later, Elsa looks at the papers again and discovers she was a few days off.
Later, JoJo walks through the town square alone, his head down, dejected and like the previous scene his mother’s shoes enter the squeeze; except instead of dancing, they’re still and without seeing the gallows, we understand. I can’t recall such an audible realization in the theater. It was cinema at its finest. An example of what the medium provides and where it can take you. Somehow placing you within the child’s mind and then pulling you beyond it. I’ve never heard so many people cry for so long.
In a flash, I was left recalling that just an hour or so before I was wondering if the film was just some over the top crude comedy attempting to make light of Nazis. The choice seems deliberate, immersing you into a child’s perspective, using design, performance, and light and color to provide the hope and distraction before shocking us with this moment of realism. From my recollection, beyond the red - blood red - shoes, it’s one of the few times where the frame was desaturated and drained. For the first moment JoJo grasps the destruction around him.
The Allies close in and the film takes an even more terrific turn where the Nazi soldiers recruit the Hitler Youth to take up weapons and defend their position. Comparable to Hitchcock never showing a knife penetrating skin in Pyscho’s (1960) shower sequence, Waititi never shows a child getting shot dead, but a mixture of sound and imagery make us comprehend it. The Death of Stalin (2017)provided a similar shift for its conclusion, abandoning satire and turning toward absolute horror.
And somehow Waititi keeps it going, as after JoJo dodges the fight, now wearing a Nazi coat, he’s captured by the Soviets, rounded up to be executed where he meets Captain Klenzendorf who’s dragged out in his custom made bedazzled soldier garment. Knowing that JoJo fails to grasp his fate, he comforts the boy before removing the jacket and calls him a Jew. The soviets let him go, rounded the others up, and JoJo hears the gunshots moments later. It’s one of the year’s best scenes.
JoJo returns to Elsa and lies about the Allies winning the war, fearing he’ll lose her. The act quickly breaks apart, providing the film’s one awkward hiccup; feeling like a dishonest prank for JoJo to play. I was left imaging if after Elsa asked who won they then walked out and danced in the streets. It’s easy enough to ignore as Elsa grasps her freedom and JoJo struggles with his reality; happy that the fighting is over, but not entirely sure for what it means for his Nazi worldview.
As of writing this, the Golden Globes nominated the film for Best Comedy. For a film that had people in the audience crying for nearly a third of the running time, I’m left wondering about the ratio. Yes, the movie is funny, but the heart and drama is right up against it. It’s one of the best movies of the year, taking a story that seems like it’s been told over and over again and somehow providing a fresh take on the era both visually and within the narrative. This is another satire of the time; the way we’ll look back to The Death of Stalin and say that this is a movie about now - about how people ignore evil so long as it doesn’t affect them. Until people can empathize with the most vulnerable, history is doomed to repeat these mistakes. The movie makes you laugh, but days later you’re realizing how easy it is for the world to shift under bright colors and happy thoughts.
BELOW: Always the most thrilling scene in a Nazi flick
Like what you read? Support the site on Patreon
Please report any spelling, grammar, or factual errors or corrections on the contact page
© Jonathan Cvack and Yellow Barrel, 2015 - 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Cvack and Yellow Barrel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.