Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, Archie Yates
There is a degree to which the life of the commercial film director is a process of building up and cashing in credits. After three critically celebrated independent films (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and a distinctive blockbuster hit (Thor: Ragnarok), New Zealand’s comedy auteur Taika Waititi was finally in the position to get backing for a project which had been in his desk drawer for a number of years. Based on Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies and filtered through Waititi’s distinctive comedic sensibility, Jojo Rabbit is an ‘anti-hate satire,’ presenting that standard story of a child coming into an understanding of how the world actually is. Except in this instance, that child is a Nazi.
Ten-year-old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), like all good children his age in 1940s Germany, is part of the Hitler youth and dreams of growing up to be a good Nazi. So dedicated is he to this idea that his imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). But when his weekend at Hitler Youth Camp doesn’t go to plan he is left scarred and wondering whether he even has what it takes to be a Nazi. Living alone with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) while his father is off at war, Jojo’s world is further turned upside down when he discovers his mother has been sheltering a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic. Unable to report her presence for fear that his mother will be punished, Jojo decides he will study her in the hopes of learning more about the Jews he has been taught to despise. However, the more he talks to Elsa, the more he is confronted by the discrepancy between what he has been taught and what he sees.
While it may feel edgy and dangerous to draw comedy out of Nazi Germany, it is, of course, far from unprecedented. In the midst of World War II Charlie Chaplin was lampooning Hitler in The Great Dictator. Mel Brooks’ The Producers was built around a Nazi musical called ‘Springtime for Hitler.’ Television series Hogan’s Heroes ran for six seasons set in a Nazi prison camp. While Roberto Benigni’s Oscar winner Life is Beautiful wasn’t as irreverent as these others, it placed a slapstick comedian into a concentration camp, showing humour as father’s tool for sheltering his son. Where Jojo Rabbit differs from the above examples in that here our protagonist and point of identification is themselves a Nazi, albeit a child who doesn’t fully comprehend the world he is being indoctrinated into. We are still laughing at the Nazis, but we are being made to sympathise with at least one of them. Despite its subject matter, this is not a dark comedy. Jojo Rabbit is not cut from the same cloth as Chris Morris’s Four Lions or Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin. It’s humour is neither black nor particularly dangerous. On the contrary, Waititi has actually made quite a sweet film set amidst arguably the greatest atrocity in human history. Whether that makes for a more or less comfortable viewing experience, however, will depend on the viewer.
While there is an incongruity for the audience with this little child who we quite like wanting so badly to be a Nazi, the film works because of its carefully managed approach to point of view. Jojo’s life, despite its hateful ideology, is presented to us as though it were an ordinary childhood experience, because from the perspective of Jojo and of all the children around him, it is. In a confronting opening montage that features a German-language cover of the Beatles’ ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ over archival footage of marching and saluting Nazis, a parallel is drawn between the rise of Nazism with the fervour of Beatlemania. In one of their conversations, Elsa challenges Jojo, saying, “You are not a Nazi. You are a ten year old who wants to be part of a club.” While it has been criticised for glossing over the atrocities of the Holocaust, Jojo Rabbit gets away with this by consciously showing us a ten-year-old’s understanding of this world. Jojo’s fanaticism is the blind devotion of a child, and it is through his developing relationship with Elsa that he starts to learn the flaws of intolerance.
While much of the supporting cast are caricatures – including, most prominently, the director himself, whose Hitler is a ten-year-old’s fabrication of the Fuhrer who anachronistically speaks like a present day teenager – Scarlett Johansson provides light and shade. While Jojo and Elsa’s relationship takes the fore, Rosie is in many ways the heart and soul of the film. While the story is told from Jojo’s point of view, it is dependent on the viewer having a greater sense of perspective than he does, and Rosie’s presence is pivotal to keeping us at arm’s length from Jojo’s ideology. While much of her performance is still comedic and consistent with the tone Waititi has created, there is a knowingness to Johansson’s character which we don’t see in others. Rosie is a loving, mother, watching her son indoctrinated, spewing what he has been told, and hoping that there is something salvageable in him. Her defiance, which Jojo never understands to the extent the audience does, makes her the moral compass of the piece.
If you are someone for whom the premise itself is a bridge too far, who finds the very notion of a comedy set in Nazi Germany uncomfortable or distasteful, there is nothing in Waititi’s film which is going to win you over. It has proven to be a divisive film along those lines. However, if the premise is not a deal-breaker for you Jojo Rabbit a sweet, funny if uneven, and at times beautiful commentary on the power of direct human connection and empathy to cut through hatred and the ignorance that fuels it.
Review by Duncan McLean
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