DIRECTOR: TAIKA WAITITI | SCREENPLAY: TAIKA WAITITI | CAST: ROMAN GRIFFIN DAVIS | THOMASIN MCKENZIE, SCARLETT JOHANSSON, TAIKA WAITITI | RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Nazi humour isn’t an easy thing to do well. Casting yourself as a buffoonish Hitler in your own film, which also happens to employ Nazi humour and asking an audience to empathise with a Nazi, might just be madness. And yet, who else would ever attempt this feat than Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do in the Shadows director/actor Taika Waititi?
To be a fly on the wall when Jojo Rabbit was pitched to investors… It is true that filmmakers as venerated as Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator, 1940) and Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not to Be, 1942) have successfully blended humour with the Third Reich, even continuing to be lauded after 1945 when the horrifying realities of concentration camps were laid bare to the world. Now, within the context of rising neo-Nazism and popular far-right politics, to ask an audience to open their hearts to a Hitler-loving child is not an easy sell. Yet Waititi’s strangely quaint and openhearted black comedy waltzes onto the screen as though without a care.
Jojo Rabbit stars Roman Griffin Davis in an astonishing debut as protagonist Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler, an adorable 10-year-old with a mop of blond curls and huge, puppy dog eyes. Slight downside, his best friend is an imaginary, rather camp Hitler (Waititi, of course) and his life’s dream is to meet Der Führer. His mother Rosie (Johansson) on the other hand, though she wouldn’t dare voice it, fails to share in Jojo’s enthusiasm. She tries her best to quietly challenge his views, taking him past a group of men and women who’ve been hanged and displayed in the town square – we only see their dangling feet, for Waititi insists on keeping graphic horror out of frame – and forcing him to look; flinching, Jojo asks what these people had done. “What they could,” she says.
The real extent of Rosie’s opposition reveals itself gradually both to the viewer and to her son. She too is doing what she can, which means harbouring a Jewish girl, Elsa (McKenzie) in their attic for the Resistance. It is when Jojo stumbles upon Elsa’s hiding space that his entire worldview begins to collapse on itself. A Jew who doesn’t have horns, or a tail, or evil powers? Faced with the reality of what he’s been taught to fear and despise, Jojo begins to question all he thought he knew, and all he thought he wanted.
Presenting the story through a child’s eyes makes for the perfect canvas on which to effectively blend goofy humour with a chilling recognition of true horrors, and moments of tenderness and deep sincerity. And while some have (and more undoubtedly will) expressed concern that the slapstick portrayal of Nazis makes light of one of humanity’s darkest moments, others will agree that this is what makes Jojo Rabbit a great satire. The screenplay gives our heroes the complexity and empathy they deserve, while the villains are denied any narrative weight. Waititi isn’t here to give Nazis a platform.
What he is here to do is present a truly affecting account of a child’s moral evolution. Jojo Rabbit simultaneously doesn’t give a shit and cares very, very much. It’s funny and irreverent yet respectful of the narrative context and incredibly affecting. The end scenes might let it down a little by being too comfortable but at the end of the day, whatever you think of this film, few can deny that Jojo shines like a beacon of hope and humanity, and who right now couldn’t use a bit more of that?