[Spoilers ahead for Jojo Rabbit and 1917]
The 2020 Oscars season sees two wartime period pieces in its Best Picture race: Jojo Rabbit and 1917. At first glance, this seems their only similarity – it’s not even the same war. Comedy legend Taika Waititi’s take on a Hitler Youth and his imaginary Führer has proven divisive in tone and content, but (in this writer’s opinion) is a comical coming-of-age story with a good heart. Sam Mendes’ drama from the stories of his grandfather is told in the illusion of two long takes, which for some is overly polished and emotionally distancing and for others is a terrific look at war through the eyes of its pawns. Disregarding the technical gimmick, it is a rather standard war film featuring beautifully sobering cinematography and excellent dramatic performances.
The notable connection between Jojo Rabbit and 1917 is the young perspective of their protagonists, which their respective films never abandon, and the lengths to which Waititi and Mendes go to portray – and occasionally emphasise – this youth: namely, absurdist comedy in a coming-of-age narrative and the illusion of a seamless, fully immersive take. Neither film offers anything radical in plot or message – Nazis are bad and World War I was a waste of lives are hardly controversial takes – but their stylistic and tonal execution creates a youthful myopia that focuses the pieces in different, yet appropriate ways, hitting similar thematic beats in the process.
Jojo Rabbit creates a child-like perspective, which makes a wonderful coming-of-age story but hinders any meaningful commentary. 1917′s intense myopia creates a hellish picture of warfare, with the little context gleaned in passing furthering the chaos and futility.
Jojo Rabbit explicitly centres around children’s distorted worldview in a radicalised world. Jojo Betzler, ten years old when the film begins, is an enthusiastic Hitler Youth member, practicing his Heils through the streets. He and his two best friends – an imaginary Adolf Hitler and a fellow Hitler Youth Yorki – talk about all the great things that they will do in the quest to become a good Nazi. Jojo is far from a likeable child, but Waititi has always excelled at depicting the difficult child protagonist and this is no exception.
Jojo’s experience is contrasted with that of Elsa, a Jewish refugee that Jojo’s mother Rosie is hiding as part of the resistance network. Elsa is the only other character whose perspective the audience is granted, in scenes between her and Rosie, and Waititi marks these changes with a shift away from the broad comedy characterising Jojo’s worldview. Instead, there is hope, sincerity, and kindness. This change is a bildungsroman classic: Jojo grows and changes (without losing his believably preadolescent foibles), and the audience is brought along on the journey.
By contrast, the protagonists of 1917 are almost always in frame, rending their unchanging perspective the sole lens. They are not literal children, but – three years into the Great War – the faces at the front are extremely young. The ages of Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake – sent through No Man’s Land to call off an offensive – are never specified, but audiences can guess. Schofield’s been around long enough to remember the last time command had said that the Germans were gone, with disastrous results, and has earned a medal which was swapped for a bottle of wine. He is also young enough that he has not numbed himself to the atrocities and bodies decaying in barbed wire. On the other hand, Blake is fresh enough at the front to believe that medals still mean something. Neither are motivated by any greater ideology than getting the war done and going home.
The adults and authority figures that Jojo interacts with are far from stalwarts of certainty or stability and yet they remain entirely unquestioned by Jojo until the film’s turning point. All – save Rosie – are comically incompetent, morally bankrupt, and blinded by their cause. Captain Klenzendorf and his cronies at the Hitler Youth camp are caricatures of fascist propagandists, with enough self-awareness in the script that the comedy works and the socio-political cultivation of bigotry is emphasised. Through the film’s lens, the ridiculousness of this brainwashing drives home the innate nonsense of war; if this absurdity is propagated by those in charge, what hope do the children have? Even Rosie lets her son become a literal Nazi to protect him – revealing a moral and situational ambiguity the film does not adequately explore.
While 1917 lacks Nazi guards sending grenade-strapped children into battle-wrecked streets, it is made clear that the youth are cannon fodder in more insidious ways. Those in charge are not above emotional blackmail or an efficient callousness to see their ends completed. The authority figures in 1917 are more shadowy than in Jojo Rabbit, each showing up only briefly along Schofield and Blake’s journey. They exist only to expedite the war machine.
General Erinmore most likely chooses Blake to deliver the order to the 2nd Devons because Blake – with an older brother in the regiment– is the one man guaranteed to go through hell or high water to get through No Man’s Land. And the only officer who shows the pair more than indifference outside their message is the one who – finding Schofield over the body of his friend – counsels him not to ‘dwell on it’ and continue the mission. He is never allowed to forget that the next fight is just around the corner – and the camera never cuts away.
Jojo Rabbit and 1917 work well as films because they fully commit to their gimmicks and only break out of them to further their respective stories. However, the drawbacks of both are a lack of nuance and occasional emotional distance. While treating Nazis with disdain is always the correct choice, Jojo Rabbit arguably downplays the scale of genocide and destruction in favour of making them comic book villains. And while realism and heartfelt developments emerge as Jojo’s view broadens, much of the hardships – such as the children’s lives when Jojo’s mother is executed – are glossed over.
In 1917, there is little opportunity to explore the world outside Schofield’s and Blake’s perspectives, and every German soldier encountered tries to kill them faster than the other way around. Moreover, the tightly choreographed filmmaking and picture-perfect cinematography (Deakins will surely win another Oscar) is almost too neat. There is no end to decaying bodies and well-fed rats, but the artistry is noted before the realism. Young perspectives are not necessarily marked by well-roundedness, but the gaps are worth noting; both films may have committed to the gimmick to the point of diminishing returns.
This leads into the most damning argument against both films. Despite the deliberateness of their choices, Jojo Rabbit and 1917 arguably fail on a fundamental level: the dichotomy of the anti-war film. François Truffaut famously stated that he felt he had never seen an anti-war film as ‘every film about war ends up being pro-war’: there are always the heroes, the villains, and the all-important entertainment value.
Walking out of 1917 and past a poster for the same film with ‘The Ultimate Big Screen Experience’ screaming from a Daily Mail pull quote feels jarring, almost tasteless. Likewise, Jojo Rabbit is an unmistakable comedy, milking laughs from one of the worst regimes in world history and choosing to comment more on the general absurdity of indoctrination rather than Nazi ideology. While there may be some exceptions, some films so brutal to watch that they lose all entertainment value and therefore are arguably truly anti-war (Platoon and The Ascent come to mind), the 2020 Oscar race finds war as an exercise in style and artistic finesse rather than something truly horrifying.
Both films’ emphasis on the youth caught up in the conflicts, rather than those in charge and calling the shots, exacerbates this uneasy positioning. Jojo Rabbit’s clear and comical stance may even work against it, make it the weaker of the two films in terms of its anti-war/anti-hate message by virtue of its stab at universal appeal. Despite its unfortunate posters and technical over-polish, the ceaseless show-not-tell storytelling of of 1917 can be read as a greater indictment of warfare as the protagonists never have a chance to rest or process the horrors out of the audience’s eye.
Whether both or either film is honoured at the upcoming Oscars remains to be seen, but each film draws markedly different, yet bittersweet, conclusions for its children of war. Jojo, now ten-and-a-half years old, has lost his mother and seen his worldview torn asunder by his friendship with Elsa, his disagreement and disillusionment with Nazi ideologies, and the destruction of his city. But he is also free of his fictional Hitler, finally able to face the world without relying on validation from an imagined dictator. And Elsa is finally free to wander into the US Army-controlled streets. They have lost all adults in their lives, they have been rummaging in the garbage for food, and yet – as they dance in tribute to Jojo’s mother – there is brightness and celebration. It is twee, and kind, and hopeful – a perfect, slight comedy denouement knowing that the children’s future is brighter.
Schofield, on the other hand, finds the hollowest victory. He has succeeded in delivering the general’s message, in stopping some of the attack and saving some – not all – of the men. But Colonel McKenzie’s bleak reminder that ‘tomorrow the order will be different’ and that the war will go on until ‘last man standing’ dampens the achievement and brings the necessity of their ordeal into question. Blake is killed halfway through the film, begging his friend to find his brother as he bleeds out.
Schofield’s solo mission, therefore, is not over until he delivers this even more difficult message once the attack is halted. When he finally rests, he reveals photos of a wife and two small children: he is fighting not only for his own generation but the next. It brings back an earlier scene where he takes momentary refuge with a French girl and baby in the bombed out Écoust. ‘They went to sea in a sieve, they did,’ he recites, trying to entertain the infant as the shelling continues. However hopeless, however foolish, he has no choice but to keep himself afloat.