AN ANTI-HATE SATIRE.
Can you imagine Adolf Hitler as a hero? Director Taika Waititi takes us somewhere we haven’t been before, the imagination of a ten-year-old boy who’s a devoted member of the Hitler Youth near the end of the war. Jojo Rabbit cleverly follows in the footsteps of great satire like The Producers (1967) and received the official blessing of Mel Brooks himself a few weeks ago.
I can understand those who don’t find Jojo Rabbit funny, because humor is an individual experience, but many also had stranger qualms. In the magazine Little White Lies, Hannah Woodhead wrote that in 2019 we don’t need to see that there were some ”Nice Nazis Too”. It’s as if some people desperately wanted to see a different film than the one Waititi made.
Johannes ”Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is ten years old and desperately needs a father figure in his life. Since his dad is serving in the war, he’s invented an imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi) himself. Jojo is very enthusiastic about the Third Reich and attends a Hitler Youth camp where he and other kids are supposed to learn how to kill. The adults in Jojo’s life have a more realistic outlook, however. Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) is in charge of the camp, but knows perfectly well that the war is lost. Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) hates Nazis, which is a touchy subject at the dinner table. One day, when Rosie is away, Jojo hears a noise from upstairs and finds a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in a space behind a wall…
Hitler as a clown
What can a loyal ten-year-old Nazi and his imaginary buddy Adolf Hitler do about that? It’s an absurd question completely in line with the film as a whole. Waititi plays Hitler as a clown, the way a child would imagine him. Much of the wild comedy in this film makes fun of Nazis and their sick, anti-Semitic ideology; the ”master race” is merely an illusion, as shown frequently, not least near the end of the film as the Third Reich is collapsing and children are sent to replace soldiers as cannon fodder. The Nazis are hilariously played by Rockwell as a gay officer, Rebel Wilson as perhaps more of a lazy fat girl caricature (her name translates in English as ”cream”) and Stephen Merchant as an eerily grinning Gestapo officer. Johansson is memorable as Jojo’s brave mother who does what she can to save the victims of the regime her boy admires.
As in previous films, especially Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), the director shows how well he works with kids. This film has a wonderful supporting turn by Archie Yates as Jojo’s best friend who’s not very good at soldiering but cheerfully does his best. Then there’s obviously Davis and McKenzie whose characters reluctantly learn to trust each other; they’re both terrific, but it’s Davis’s performance that has the greatest emotional impact as he slowly realizes the errors of the world his imaginary friend has created. The film also has fine technical qualities, including an anachronistic soundtrack that offers the famous German versions of classic David Bowie and Beatles songs.
Waititi knows how to walk a fine line between different genres. That’s what he did so well in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), fusing comedy and superhero lore. Jojo Rabbit is his greatest challenge yet, offering big laughs and abysmal darkness. It’s something to behold.
Jojo Rabbit 2019-U.S. 108 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Carthew Neal, Taika Waititi, Chelsea Winstanley. Written and directed by Taika Waititi. Novel: Christine Leunens (”Caging Skies”). Editing: Tom Eagles. Production Design: Ra Vincent, Nora Sopková. Costume Design: Mayes C. Rubeo. Cast: Roman Griffin Davis (Johannes ”Jojo” Betzler), Thomasin McKenzie (Elsa Korr), Taika Waititi (Adolf Hitler), Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Rebel Wilson… Stephen Merchant.
Last word: “I like to be everyone’s friend as a director, to have a nice familial feel on set, and I’m trying to encourage sharing of ideas and a cool, creative space … but I’m dressed like Hitler. It just changes things, really. […] I would take off the moustache whenever I wasn’t in the scene, and I’d wear a hat, and always take off the jacket because you don’t want to be walking around with a fucking swastika on your arm trying to direct kids.” (Waititi, The Guardian)