JOJO RABBIT – movie review

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenwriter: Taika Waititi based on on the book “Caging Skies” by Chrstine Leunens
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Sam Rockwell, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Scarlett Johansson
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/14/19
Opens: October 18, 2019

The time is long past that we did not dare to treat Hitler and the Holocaust with broad comedy. Hitler was a demon, the most evil man of the 20th century, so how can we deal with him other than with serious documentaries and dramas? Must everything be as serious as Berthold Brecht’s 1941 play “The Resistable Rise of Urturo Ui”? No. Charlie Chaplin knew that the best way to take such people down is to laugh at them, thus “The Great Dictator,” though in 1940 Chaplin could scarcely have known just how evil the German chancellor was. “The Producers” could be considered the first major movie that laughs at Hitler, and now comes “Jo Jo Rabbit” that mocks Hitler as a fool but hardly shows the depths of depravity in his characterization by Taika Waititi. If you’re wondering about the name of this inventive director, Waititi hails from the Raukokore region of the East Coast of New Zealand, and is the son of Robin Cohen, a teacher, and Taika Waiti, an artist and farmer. His father is Maori (Te-Whanau-a-Apanui), and his mother is of Ashkenazi Jewish, Irish, Scottish, and English descent.

While the director has twenty-two credits, largely from overseeing TV episodes, his “What We Do in the Shadows” about vampires who worry more about paying the rent than about nourishing themselves, gives us a hint of the oddball and original works to come. The title figure in “Jojo Rabbit” is a ten-year-old boy from a German village played by Roman Griffin Davis, the son of Rosie Betzler, (Scarlett Johansson), who has an adult playmate in his spacious house named Adolf Hitler (the director himself). In the opening scenes which are the movie’s fastest-moving and zaniest, he attends a Hitler Youth camp taught by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), where the young men are taught military skills while the girls, scarcely teens, are instructed in how to get pregnant. (Truth to tell, the Nazi government cared not a whit about marriage. Women’s purpose was to give birth as many times as they could to populate the Reich with Aryan babies.) The girls here are instructed by Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who gave the Fatherland eighteen of ‘em.

When Jojo Belcher is injured by a grenade he is drummed out of the camp but not before taking part in such fun activities as burning books. When he refused orders to kill a rabbit, he is derided by the counselors, given the nickname Jojo Rabbit. Filled with ridiculous tales of alleged Jewish depravity he is shocked to discover that his mother is hiding Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish woman of about eighteen years of age. You might expect that Elsa, when discovered by this young nazi kid, would cower, but instead she boldly declares that if Jojo turns her in, she would tell the Gestapo that he and his mother were hiding her, even using some physical force to show her lack of fear. Eventually, as everyone in the audience knew, he would hear about the Jewish tradition, how Jews were chosen by God, and comes around even to falling in love with her.

Brief archival shots show the genuine love for Hitler as thousands lined the streets when he passed in his car, reminding us that the people in charge of governments, the CEOs as you will, are often hardly the types of people that Plato advocated to be leaders. Few of them even now are Platonic philosopher kings, and many subjects are blown away by their vulgarity and cannot understand how their decisions could spell disaster for themselves and their country.

This is a remarkable feel-good movie in the style of Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” about a Jewish-Italian book shop owner who must shield his young son from the terrors of the Nazis. Eleven-year-old Roman Griffin Davis is the actor to watch, having turned in an astonishing role, evoking the full range of emotions from surprise to joy to terror. “Jojo Rabbit” was filmed in the Czech Republic.

108 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – B+
Overall – A-

13 MINUTES – movie review

13 MINUTES (Elser)

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B+
Director:  Oliver Hirschbiegel
Written by: Fred Breinersdorfer, Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer
Cast: Christian Friedel, Hatharina Schuettler, Burghart Klaussner, Johann von Buelow
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 2/15/17
Opens: June 30, 2017
Elser Movie Poster
Here’s a question that you might ask to test the courage and ethical values of a person.  If you had could see the future back in 1900 when Hitler was still an apolitical young man, would you have killed him if you had the chance?  Remember: that since you are the only person to see far ahead and you would be treated as a common killer.  You would be an unrecognized hero as the war would not have taken place, and you would be serving a life term for a crime that nobody could understand.

Something similar happens in 1939, though conditions were different. Europe is on the brink of war because of provocations of one man, who holds most of his Germany mesmerized by his oratory.  Were it not for Hitler, World War 2 might have been averted and 55 million people would have been saved.  Therefore, assassinating this ruthless tyrant, the most evil person of the century, would be a noble task. Would anyone step forward to do the deed?  One man did, though he thought he could get away with the murder.  Though a Communist sympathizer living in a small town in the Swabian Jura, he acted alone.  The fellow was “Georgie” Elser, quite the ladies’ man, a handsome fellow, even better looking than the comely Christian Friedel who portrays him and can be found in virtually every frame.  He could be defined as a free spirit, one who believes in individual freedom and keeping the government out of the business of planning and executing senseless wars.

Oliver Hirschbiegel, who directs, and whose stunning 2004 film “Downfall” describes Hitler’s final day in his bunker, brings Fred Breinersdorfer and Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer’s screenplay to life, setting the suspenseful tone without delay.  A sweating, grunting, Elser (Christian Friedel), working alone with dynamite that he assembled and places just below a Munich speakers’ platform, is timed to go off during Hitler’s address to a crowd of supporters.  The timer works, but the explosion comes thirteen minutes after Der Führer had already left the town hall.  Elser seeks to flee to Switzerland, but is arrested by suspicious soldiers and stupidly has incriminating evidence on his person.  The rest of the film switches regularly to his happier days in town where the women had eyes on him, and to an unhappy time when he is interrogated by the Gestapo and others in the German high command who firmly believe that the assassination attempt was  planned by a group.

While Elser’s only enemy before 1939 might have been Erich (Rüdiger Klink), the abusive, drunken husband of George’s main squeeze Else Härlen (Katharina
Schüttler), he fares badly after his arrest, subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  Lying flat on some springs with a vomit basin beneath his mouth while repeatedly asked by head of criminal police Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner) and Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow) for his name and date of birth, he answers with silence and is met with a severe whipping that led to his throwing up right into the basin.  But when his family is threatened, he relates how he got the explosives and continues to insist that he worked alone.  Punishments increase incrementally under the orders of the SS Obergruppenführer (Simon Licht), who demands that the prisoner name his accomplices.
It’s intriguing to watch the ambience of Elser’s small-town Koenigsbronn (which lies on the tourist belt now).  The town is at first a zone for Communist activities, then shifts to an alliance with the Nazis, the youths harassing Elser’s family for being church-going Christians.  If you want to know how a town like this could support the National Socialists, look simply at these small-fry, proud in their uniforms as Hitler Youth, with bright, swastika banners virtually proclaiming that Hitler would transform his country into paradise.
There are sentimental scenes in the film.  One shows that the secretary (Lissy Pernthaler) typing notes develops sympathy for the hapless prisoner, agreeing to do him a favor. Even one of the Nazis questioning Elser—who is considered too soft by his colleague—ends up collaborating later in an assassination attempt against Hitler.

One of the cinematic pleasures is a scene in which Elser is given an injection of truth serum, which serves only to make the prisoner hallucinate about happier days in his small town.  Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann also serves up close-ups expressing the passion that the abused wife Else feels for Elser during the early 1930s.  Nor does Christian Friedel portray Elser in any but the most worthy way, contrasting his skirt-chasing joys with his physical and psychological pain after his arrest.

We are left with a mystery. Some viewers may fault the script for not telling us why Elser, in custody from November 1939 through April 1945, was given preferential treatment in the concentration camps, or why he was even left alive for over five years after the assassination attempt.  In fact he was given such treatment as use of the Dachau bordello holding Russian women, a daily shave, and all the cigarettes he could smoke.  The reason for this unusual behavior by the Nazis is not given because, simply, to this day, nobody knows!

Rated R.  110 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics OnlineComments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?