This article reveals major plot points from Jojo Rabbit and Life Is Beautiful, including discussion of both films’ endings.
I have a hard time disliking Jojo Rabbit. Usually that construction signifies somewhat grudging admiration, but in this case it’s meant more literally: I genuinely and strongly dislike Jojo Rabbit, but I have quite a hard time doing so. That’s not because disdain puts me in the minority. Hell, the list of highly acclaimed movies that do little or nothing for me is longer than Schindler’s (but does not include Schindler’s List). Rather, the problem is that my argument against Jojo—which is up for six Academy Awards tonight, including Best Picture, Supporting Actress (Scarlett Johansson), Adapted Screenplay, and Editing—sounds exactly like the argument that haters made against Life Is Beautiful 21 years ago, when it, too, was nominated for multiple Oscars (winning for Foreign-Language Film, Score, and Roberto Benigni as Best Actor). Having defended the latter back in the day, I now feel a bit hypocritical. Have I become what I behold?
Both films risk ruffling feathers by taking an unconventionally (albeit not exclusively) lighthearted approach to Nazi atrocities. Jojo Rabbit concerns a 10-year-old Hitler Youth member (Roman Griffin Davis) whose love for the Führer (played as a purely comic figure by writer-director Taika Waititi) gets tested when he discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house; its tone of gentle buffoonery is generally similar to that of previous Waititi films like Eagle Vs. Shark and Hunt For The Wilderpeople. In a similarly counterintuitive vein, Life Is Beautiful imagines a devoted, fun-loving father, Guido (played as a purely comic figure by writer-director Benigni), who tries to shield his young son from the horrors of the concentration camp they’ve been taken to by pretending that everything around them is actually part of the kid’s elaborate birthday present. Inevitably, viewers who can’t get on these movies’ wavelength wind up appalled rather than charmed. Thing is, though, I was never charmed by Life Is Beautiful, a film I eventually concluded may be great in spite of Benigni’s concerted effort to make it terrible. Should I give Jojo the same benefit of the doubt?
Nah. Waititi definitely knows what he’s doing; I just think he does it poorly. For one thing, he’s imposed broadly satirical comedy onto material that by all accounts (I haven’t read the book myself) isn’t remotely funny. That’s not inherently a bad thing—Stanley Kubrick turned Peter George’s deadly serious Red Alert into the black-comedy masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, and nobody now complains (if anyone ever did) that it trivializes the threat of accidental nuclear devastation. But Kubrick went for the jugular, gleefully exaggerating everything—he even tricked George C. Scott into an uncharacteristically broad performance, using what he’d told Scott were merely “warm-up” takes in the final cut—and dispensing with even the slightest hint of pathos. Waititi, on the other hand, wants to portray Adolf Hitler as a goofy imaginary friend who says, “Correctamundo!” but also depict the horrifying moment that sees young Jojo recognize his mother’s distinctive shoes on the feet of a hanging corpse. The movie keeps needlessly reminding us of its underlying gravity, which only makes its silliness feel obscene.
Life Is Beautiful, by contrast, goes out of its way to avoid disturbing images or upsetting situations, even though its second half is set entirely inside a Nazi concentration camp. Consequently, some critics accused it of sanitizing the Holocaust, transforming the deaths of millions into a bizarrely feel-good story about one father’s quest to protect his young son’s psyche. Actually, it’s even worse than that, viewed at face value: The film literally turns extermination into a game, as Guido tells his son that they’re taking part in a competition for which first prize is an honest-to-goodness tank. One must amass 1,000 points, he explains, in order to win; said points are allotted for strategic maneuvers (e.g., successfully hiding from the players who wear uniforms and yell nonsense) and/or deducted for strategic errors (e.g., crying, wanting to see Mommy, asking for a snack). Remarks about human crematoria are casually dismissed as psychological gamesmanship on the part of aggressive players. The film’s most memorable scene finds Guido translating a Nazi guard’s dictates into Italian, pretending that they’re the game’s rules.
In and of itself, that’s more creative and thought-provoking than Waititi’s cuddly child’s-eye Hitler, who serves only as a variation on such tired tropes as the grandma who improbably spews profanity. Life Is Beautiful depicts the Holocaust as an event so unimaginable that it only makes sense as a nonsense game—one like Bill Watterson’s “Calvinball,” say, in which the rules are constantly changing at the whim of whoever’s in power—and, more crucially, so horrific that it could only be endured by those who opted to pretend that it simply wasn’t happening. Guido is trying to convince himself, too, not just the boy. This is made clear in the film’s ostensibly sunny first half, during which Guido becomes obsessed with German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory that human beings self-construct our own versions of reality. This starts off as a series of jokes about Guido attempting to will things into happening by performing what looks like a huckster’s “magic” gesture: hands waving in circles with fingers wiggling. By the time that gesture reappears in the camp, however, Guido has already mentally transformed Dachau into Disneyland. The movie’s true subject is neither paternal love nor sacrifice but the human capacity for denial.
Granted, one can credibly refute this interpretation simply by pointing at Benigni himself. Should Waititi win Best Adapted Screenplay tonight, I feel confident he won’t make his way to the podium by clambering along the backs of people’s seats, as Benigni did when Life Is Beautiful won the Foreign-Language Oscar. The Italian filmmaker’s apparently irrepressible exuberance makes it nearly impossible to perceive him as the driving force behind a disturbing parable cleverly disguised as inspirational hooey, and the only two movies he’s since directed in no way suggest a subversive genius at work. It’s entirely possible that Benigni fully intended to make something that I’d find deeply misguided, if not outright offensive, and just stumbled onto a scenario that happens to be far more interesting and rewarding when viewed from another angle. In that case, it seems unfair to blame Waititi for failing to get equally lucky. With a little more effort, maybe I can construct a disturbing subtext for Jojo Rabbit’s finale, in which Jojo and Elsa celebrate the end of the war by doing self-consciously wacky dance moves to the anachronistic accompaniment of David Bowie’s “Heroes” (German-language version)—a triumphant note that currently strikes me as far too glib, given its temporal proximity to Jojo finding his mother’s body hanging lifeless in a public square.
Deep down, though, I’m still convinced that Life Is Beautiful is stealthily nightmarish by design, despite the contradictory evidence that Benigni has all but assaulted us with over the course of his life and career. One key scene rarely gets mentioned, perhaps because it’s so starkly at odds with the rest of the movie: Toward the end, Guido, wandering the camp while carrying his sleeping son, encounters an enormous pile of corpses—the sole visual reminder we get of what’s actually happening in the camp, of what Guido’s strenuously ignoring. In theory, this moment should be as tonally incompatible as is the death of Jojo’s mother. But Benigni and his cinematographer, Tonino Delli Colli, shoot the sequence in a dreamlike fog (this fog is actually the very first thing we see, without any explanation whatsoever, when the film begins—hint hint), making it seem less real than the pseudo-benign banality with which it’s juxtaposed. Furthermore, the corpse pile is heavily stylized in a way that suggests an edgy art project rather than mass murder. So it’s no surprise when Guido immediately retreats to his fantasy world, later “saving” his son from being found by the Nazis by using his magic hand gesture. He’s deluded to the end.
Jojo Rabbit offers nothing that’s even potentially so thorny. The film’s comedic and dramatic elements undermine rather than reinforce each other, because Waititi gives them equal weight and alternates between them; it’s as if he doesn’t trust the audience to make the necessary connections and inferences. Whereas Life Is Beautiful’s power resides in the juxtaposition between what Benigni shows us and what we know is going on outside of the frame—between what’s happening and what Guido pretends is happening. That goes double for the film’s ostensibly happy (even schmaltzy) ending, with its jaunty march-style variation on composer Nicola Piovani’s Oscar-winning theme and its triumphant final freeze-frame. Mother and child, reunited at last, hug ecstatically. Neither one of them has the slightest clue that Dad is lying dead in an alleyway miles behind them. The kid, in fact, believes that he’s just won the contest, and that the American tank that liberated the camp is his prize. “We won!” he shouts repeatedly, thrusting both arms skyward in a victorious salute. “Yes, we won,” she replies, smiling happily. Nope, no dark irony there. Both Jojo Rabbit and Life Is Beautiful achieved crowd-pleaser status (and reaped, or may soon reap, Oscar glory) by reassuring us that goodness and light will prevail. Only one of them really means it.