US/New Zealand (2019) Dir. Taika Waititi
Back in the 1940s, especially in Britain, comedies about Hitler and the war were quite common, designed to lift the spirits of the nation as plucky British soldiers gave the Hun what for. Since then, satirising this period of history has waned drastically – until now…
During the last months of the war, ten-year old German Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) joins the Hitler Youth to follow in the footsteps of his Nazi father, to the chagrin of his anti-war mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). In his father’s absence, Jojo is encouraged by his imaginary friend Adolph Hitler (Taika Waititi), always on hand to justify Jojo’s Nazi ambitions.
Jojo proves inept at his first day of training, getting blown up by a hand grenade and left with a limp and facial scars. At home one day, Jojo finds Jewish girl Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding upstairs, taken in by his mother. At first Jojo is hostile towards Elsa until Jojo learns Rosie could be in trouble for hiding a Jew, so he drills her for secrets about the Jews. As he gets to know Elsa, Jojo becomes conflicted by his Nazi ideals.
Many will consider Charlie Chaplin’s cheeky take on Hitler in The Great Dictator to be the wackiest version seen on screen, which is quite an achievement considering what a nutter Hitler was. 80 years later, Taika Waititi has taken on the challenge to create an even goofier, more comical portrayal of the Fuhrer.
Yet, for all the Python-esque comedy and scathing satire Jojo Rabbit revels in, it actually stands up very well as a serious and dramatic look at indoctrination and the pernicious damage done by poisonous discrimination. Using children to illustrate this might sound cruel or deliberately provocative but it’s a brilliant move – it shames easily led adults into looking at themselves if they can be fooled on the same level as the callow mind of a child.
Waititi flies out of the gate with the zany comedy; Hitler is already by Jojo’s side and in his head, gearing him up for his first day at Hitler Youth training. It doesn’t matter that we meet Jojo already a fully paid up Hitler zealot, the backstory is slowly fed to us throughout the film, or at least enough of it to grasp Jojo is his father’s son and Rosie would rather he wasn’t.
Hitler is not the only goofy German on parade – running the camp is Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a glass eye sporting dyed-in-the-wool Nazi with a possible gay side to him. He gives Jojo the “rabbit” nickname when the lad can’t bring himself to kill a rabbit to prove he is the right fit for the Nazis. It is a pep talk from Hitler that inspires Jojo to use the hand grenade test to prove his worth, which proves catastrophically fateful.
Klenzendorf, who is demoted to office duty shortly after, is flanked by Finkel (Alfie Allen) and the hard line instructor of the girls in the Hitler Youth, Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). There is little subtlety to these portrayals so mileage will vary as to whether they are lazy stereotypes or sufficient lampoons – Rahm being played by a “big” girl like Wilson speak for itself really, though she is also quite amusing too with her patriotic fervour.
Rosie being an anti-war campaigner quietly filters through into the main story, though Jojo is the last to recognise this. It is only after Jojo discovers Elsa hiding in their house that the penny drops. Elsa is secluded in a secret chamber behind the panels in the bedroom of Jojo’s late older sister Inga, whom Elsa bears a passing resemblance to. Jojo thinks it is best to report Elsa but when Klenzendorf explains what happens to Jewish sympathisers, he changes his mind.
There is a gradual change of tone hereon after as the zaniness is subdued, moving closer to dark satire, and finally poignant drama, belatedly following the serious nature of its source material, the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens. As Jojo asks Elsa to explain being Jewish to him (“Like you, only human”), the lies he has been told about them are egregiously stupid – they have devil horns, are inhuman and can read people’s minds – and no doubt was a part of Hitler’s anti-Semitist rhetoric in the day.
As much as he tries to stay true to Hitler and his Nazi leanings, Jojo is forced to face the harsh reality of his attitude as his feelings for Elsa grow and tragedy strikes. The end of the war brings an end to the deception, but who does Jojo have to thank for opening his eyes – Elsa or the Allied Forces? And what about Hitler? Is he still going to be Jojo’s imaginary friend after this?
It is safe to say that the relationship between Jojo and Elsa is the strongest element of this film, superseding the comedy double act of Jojo and Hitler, and even Jojo and Rosie. All three have a vital part to play in shaping Jojo’s impressionable mind, and it is a credit to 12 year-old Roman Griffin Davis that he is able to create such palpable yet diverse chemistry with his more experienced co-stars. Thomasin McKenzie is also one to watch out for in the future.
Quite often, we do need to see things through a child’s eyes before the reality hits us and that I believe is what Waititi was trying to achieve with this film. But he does so in quite a modern fashion to make the idea of blanket discrimination and radicalisation palatable and relatable for today’s audience. This spiky attitude is pervasive throughout the film, yet doesn’t jar with the period setting, unless you count the German language versions of Beatles and Bowie classics in the musical soundtrack.
Jojo Rabbit works on two levels and the audience can choose which one satisfies the most and neither should be disappointed.