When the premise for Jojo Rabbit was revealed – it’s the story of a boy and his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler – people were understandably concerned. But Taika Waititi is no stranger to portraying serious issues in his films, and through his comedy exposes not only the ridiculousness of Nazi ideology but why it was such a welcoming idea for characters like Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, a lonely boy looking for a sense of belonging.
His decision as a self described “Polynesian Jew” to play Hitler himself is a brilliant, kick in the teeth from Waititi, who employs a high New Zealand accented voice. Make no mistake, though – as Jojo questions the Nazi ideas, Waititi can momentarily make for a scarily angry Hitler. His Hitler is only fun and games until he’s threatened.
Jojo Rabbit never glamorises Nazism. In fact, it exposes its flaws through scenes where Jojo is picked on and bullied Jojo Rabbit never glamorises Nazism. In fact, it exposes its flaws through scenes where Jojo is picked on and bullied by others at camp and scenes where Jojo describes what a Jew is supposed to be, horns and mind control powers included, to the Jewish Elsa. The film isn’t just a comedy about an overly enthusiastic Nazi-in-training. It’s so much deeper than that, exploring broken families, the tragedy and brutality of war, and growing up in such an ideologically charged period.
Thomasin McKenzie’s Elsa, a young Jewish girl who Jojo finds sheltering in his own house, is able to joke at Jojo’s expense – but is also often clearly upset by his antisemitic rhetoric, and is a character who radiates a deep sadness. Jojo’s mother struggles to connect with her radicalised son. Scarlett Johansson’s performance is mesmerising, a woman teetering on the edge. But for Jojo she is always vibrant and buoyant, a mother doing her best.
The only problem with Jojo Rabbit is its jarring tonal shift. Like a flip being switched, the film goes from belly-laugh comedy to tear-jerker. While this could be seen to be reflective of how the war cleaved into ordinary Germans’ lives, it doesn’t feel like it entirely worked here.
The final act of the film is one that pulls no emotional punches. It is clear that Jojo Rabbit is not in any way trying to hide or mask the realities of the war in order to appeal to a younger audience. Waititi treats the war with immense respect and scenes of Jojo’s hometown being bombed are a gut punch. Nobody is safe: we even see Jojo’s friend Yorki, at the age of eleven, fighting for his town. Rebel Wilson’s Fräulein Rahm encourages children to join the fight, supplying them with guns and bombs before sending them off. There is a real and unexpected fear to be found in the chaos of the film’s climax.
As much as it makes us laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, it can also make us cry with the realities of the war. It’s a bold film: but if anyone could pull it off, Waititi can, and does, with characteristic aplomb.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Com mons