This is the second in a series where I look at the opening sequences of Oscar nominated screenplays and point out some of the tools used by the writers, and highlight why they are considered to be exceptional.
Oscar Wilde said; “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and so when something works it works… and is worth using again – all in moderation of course.
My first recall of the tool used by the writer Taika Waititi here in the opening scene of Jojo Rabbit is in a screenplay written by Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek for the film The Big Chill in the early ‘80s. The technique is to draw the audience in by showing them a montage of images in extreme detail and letting them work out what’s going on for themselves. Then when you have already hooked their interest, you reveal in more detail exactly what is going on and who the characters involved are.
THE WORLD OF THE FILM
It’s the first scene and already it is clear to the audience as to the world in which this film is set. The uniform, the shoes clicked together at the heels, the Hitler moustache…
The writer has directly told the reader that we are “face to face with our HERO”, “JOHANNES BETZLER, (JOJO), a cute 10 year-old boy.” Everyone loves “cute” children! No guessing required here.
Everything that we have suspected as an audience is confirmed and validated in the characters first words on screen. The dialogue clearly repeats all the information that we have read in the action element – this time for the audience – and removes any doubt that the viewer may have had about who the character is.
“Jojo Betzler, ten and a half years old.
Today you join the ranks of the Jungvolk.”
There are two important clues as to the nature of this character; one the “little dance on the spot”, and two the attempt at a “wink”; both visual interpretations of the “cute” that appears in the action element, and which the audience will not have an opportunity to read.
FROM PAGE TO SCREEN
Interestingly on screen, this opening scene is only slightly reminiscent of the script. An improvement I’d say. And something that often takes place when the writer is the director, as it is in this case. I don’t know when these changes took place, but I do think that the scene on screen is a big improvement on the screenplay as it gives us a much better idea of both the character and the genre.
Notice too how the scene draws us in through the clever use of dialogue. The first half of the scene introduces us to a vulnerable little boy, but the second half throws us into a ra-ra motivational session for Jojo that is delivered by Hitler himself. It is infectious, and we become emotionally invested in Jojo as we are caught up in his excitement. On reflecting a fair reflection of how Hitler managed to build up such a large following during the second half of the 1930’s.
Here is a transcription of the opening scene as it appears in the finished film;
VIEW THE OPENING SCENE FROM JOJO RABBIT