Opera Meets Film: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Retells Gounod’s ‘Faust’ From A Hitler Youth’s Imaginative Perspective

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Taika Watiti’s “Jojo Rabbit.”

On first instance, “Jojo Rabbit” is as weird a film as its title suggests. We are following around a young boy Jojo as he tries to make his way into the Nazi ranks. Goading him on his imaginary friend Hitler, a cartoony, fun-loving, father figure to the inexperienced boy. Nazis and their rules and regulations are showcased as silly, but fun and colorful.

There’s no doubt that audiences will be uncomfortable during these opening 20 minutes of the movie.

But director Taika Watiti, who plays Hitler in the film, has other plans bubbling beneath the surface. He isn’t presenting Nazis as fun-loving good guys because he wants to look at them from a different lens – he’s presenting this particular point-of-view because it is how Jojo sees them. It’s his world we are living in and as the narrative shifts and his views also change, the Nazis slowly but surely don’t look so appealing or fun-loving – they’re scary.

Viewed through this lens, “Jojo Rabbit” is a Faustian tale with the young boy’s soul in contention between those of moral goodness and Nazis (as personified by the Mephisotepheles of this film, Hitler). So it is no surprise that the operatic excerpt showcased in this film, albeit briefly, comes from Gounod’s “Faust.”

Poking Fun At Nazis

The scene is a pivotal moment in Jojo’s development from Nazi “fanatic,” as his mother puts it, to a boy freed from this cultural pact imposed on him. At a swimming pool, he looks on as a bunch of soldiers are trained to deal with the treacherous challenges offered by the enclosed space, which his instructors point out is absurd. A Strauss waltz blares out over the soundtrack to up the sense of parody engulfing the scene while Jojo asks a question of his mentors – “What are Jews like?” After this scene he will embark on trying to create a book about the Jewish people and what they look like, a summation of the stories he has heard.

At the tail-end of this scene, a shot cuts back to the swimming pool, the camera now underwater as we switch to the waltz from “Faust.” The intention remains comical, but there is an added layer of irony with the camera underwater looking up at the exposed Nazis flailing about in the pool. Whereas the chorus is in synch and full of joy, the “soldiers” look completely lost and vulnerable. The discrepancy between the choral unity and the visual disorganization emphasizes just how poorly prepared the Nazis are for any combat, poking fun at their stupidity.

This is further amplified by the overall jumbled feel of the scene. Jojo is in conversation with multiple characters all at once with the various intercuts with the action in the swimming pool; the musical shift mid-way through only exacerbates this feeling for the audience. What is ultimately expressed is Jojo’s own confused state emotionally.

Faustian Tale

The “Faust” quote can’t be overlooked or taken for granted as it is yet another example of a director inserting a little hint of the film’s structural and narrative reference. In much the same way that “Wall Street’s” brief “Rigoletto” excerpt contextualized the film as a free adaptation of the Verdi opera, Jojo subtly wears its major references on its sleeve. Jojo, of course, is Faust with Hitler embodying Mephistofeles himself in his pursuit of getting Jojo to become a truly great Nazi.

But, the Gounod version of the story is especially relevant because of how “Jojo Rabbit” centers its main conflict. Jojo has power over Elsa, a fugitive hiding out in his house and must decide how best to handle her. Elsa, of course, is a Marguerite stand-in of sorts. Jojo falls in love with her but has no idea how to handle this new-found fascination; he’s a young pre-teen who has no idea about sexual or emotional relationships. Faust was an old man who denied himself human interaction and romance throughout his life and is now encountering something he has no idea how to  manage. Both Jojo and Faust handle it poorly.

The Marguerite narrative is crucial to “Jojo” in its contextualization of Gounod’s “Faust” because it is the only version to truly center on the Marguerite narrative; in fact, some have noted that she is the central figure of the story, her character development more complex than any other version of the story. Goethe’s “Faust,” arguably the most famous iteration of the story, moves far beyond Marguerite with her story restricted to the first part; Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” the other famous version of the story, has another focus. Boito’s own adaptation of the work also confines Marguerite to half the story. Busoni’s version doesn’t even bother with her.

The endings of both “Jojo Rabbit” and Gounod’s “Faust” center on the female character’s soul being saved. Marguerite’s soul is “sauvée,” as proclaimed by the angelic chorus, while Elsa is shown “paradise” by Jojo at the close of the film after the Allies invade their town.

Being the story about a child, there isn’t as much ambiguity about Jojo’s future in Watiti’s film. At the climax, he not only rejects Nazism and the “Heil Hitler” salute, but he does so by kicking his imaginary Hitler out of his window and telling him to “F**k off.” His soul is saved. Faust doesn’t necessarily get that kind of vindication in the Gounod opera, his fate left up to the director at hand.


Opera Meets Film