When Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1998) was released, many critics were disturbed about it turned the Holocaust into a clownish joke. They failed to remember some of the greatest comedy directors, from Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator) to Mel Brooks (The Producers), had previously poked fun at Nazi Germany. So Kiwi director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) certainly isn’t the first filmmaker to satirise Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s. But after his mainstream breakthrough Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Waititi has reversed direction with this follow up, Jojo Rabbit, by going back to his roots with smaller heartfelt movies such as Boy (2010).
The first film of Waititi’s I saw was Eagle vs Shark (2007), and since then he’s remained one of my favourite contemporary comedy directors. With his DIY sensibility and odd sense of humour, he’s been able to hold a kaleidoscope to our eyes; creating new ways of envisioning the world surrounding us. In a day and age where comedy’s become so fickle, this Jewish director may be the last person one would expect to adapt Christine Leunens’ 2008 novel Caging Skies. However, this has been his passion project for several years. Produced by Fox Searchlight, Jojo Rabbit is actually a Disney production. Upon release, there were concerns the material may be too risky for the Mouse House, but after winning the same TIFF award as Peter Farrelly’s Green Book (2018), Disney’s risk has ultimately paid off.
Set during the dying days of World War II, Jojo Rabbit follows the young Nazi fanatic Jojo Beltzer (Roman Griffin Davis) in Nazi Germany. Lonely and neglected, Jojo’s imaginary best-friend is none other than Adolf Hitler himself (Taiki Waititi). Brainwashed by Nazi propaganda and spurred on by Der Füher, Jojo finds a sense of belonging by joining in the Hitler Youth group. Unfortunately for him, he’s inept with military training and ends up injuring himself with a grenade. With little else to do, he stays at home while his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), secretly aides resistance groups. But after uncovering a hidden door, Jojo finds a teenage Jewish refugee named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in the walls of his home…
Making his movie debut, Roman Griffin Davis is a perfect protagonist for Waititi’s dark comedy and proves he’s a star in the making. His Jojo Beltzer is blinded by Nazi propaganda and easily influenced by false images of Jews and opposing allies—but as a Hitler Youth, he feels he can finally do something important for his country, and more importantly protect his mum. Davis portrays his character with a childlike innocence to evoke our sympathies, capturing the profound transformation Jojo goes through as his eyes are opened to the hard truths of war.
After delivering an astonishing performance in Leave No Trace (2018), Thomasin McKenzie again excels as the beautiful Jewish teenager Elsa, hiding in the depths of Jojo’s home. Her sarcasm and wit would sit comfortably with Regina George in Mean Girls (2004). However, this coping mechanism is how she deals with the pain she and her family have suffered. Elsa’s strong and resilient for a young girl in her situation, but as she and Jojo get to know each other, her vulnerability beings to shine through.
The relationship between the 10-year-old Nazi Youth member and the Jewish girl provides the majority of the picture’s charm. With his “impressive collection of Swastikas” plastered on his bedroom wall, Jojo idolises the Nazi’s like a child admires a football team. For him to forget the Nazi ideals he’s been indoctrinated with would require more than just stern words from his mother. It has to come from contradictory experiences. He begins investigating her behaviour, creating a book full of answers to his ridiculous beliefs. “Where are your horns?” Jojo asks. Teasing him, Elsa replies “we don’t get them until we turn 21”. Elsa may be Jewish, but she’s far from a forked tongued monster his favourite club portrays.
Eventually, Jojo goes from being terrified of Elsa, to wanting her attention and affection. As the two form a friendship, Jojo begins to fall in love. In connecting with Elsa, he not only discovers her humanity but his own along with the way. As his feelings mature, he discovers the complexities of the danger they’re both in. Jojo’s loyalty to his country and his understanding from right and wrong change drastically. The contrasting views of the two children create Jojo Rabbit’s sincere tone. Proving this is more than an “anti-hate satire”, but a heartwarming coming of age tale learning about the love and acceptance of others.
Like many of his previous pictures, the scene-stealer here is Waititi himself. Relishing the chance to portray one of history’s worst villains, the director portrays Der Führer like a bumbling moron. Taking cues from the playbook of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, he’s hamming things up to eleven as Jojo’s imaginary dictator. Bouncing around talking in a thick cartoonish German accent, he encourages Jojo “to be the best little Nazi in the whole of the Third Reich.” However, his purpose is more than provoking laughs. As well as acting almost like a father figure, Hitler also represents Jojo’s internal struggle. The realisation between who he is, and who he’s been conditioned to be. As Jojo begins to deconstruct the falsities he’s been told, a bitter Hitler appears—resembling a child throwing tantrums.
Unsurprisingly this characterisation of Hitler has been the most controversial topic of the feature and has critics divided. Delivered in similar satirical fashion as Dr Strangelove (1964), Waititi’s extremely caricatured version of Hitler and the Nazi regime is purposely made to look foolish. It’s not to make light of the atrocities the regime committed, but to point out their ideology shouldn’t be taken seriously. Personally, to see a director poke fun at the idiotic falsities spread through Nazi propaganda was refreshing. Creating laughs at the absurdity of violence due to misguidance of corrupt rulers makes Jojo Rabbit a perfect commentary for 2019. In a social climate where fascism still exists and we’re being fed lies about each other every day through social media. One could argue that Waititi’s message is more relevant today than ever.
Scarlett Johansson (Avengers: Endgame) does a wonderful job portraying Jojo’s mother Rosie. She’s touching and shows strength in a completely different way than we’re used to seeing in her Marvel movies. With the help of a glass of red wine at the dinner table, she remains playful and positive for the sake of her son. Although she mourns the loss of her husband and daughter, she remains strong and independent while tackling both parental roles. As the emotional anchor of the movie, she tries her best to point her son in the right direction. Whilst Jojo is surrounded by good and evil, she explains that it’s possible to love your country, but to hate the war. Whilst choosing one over the other will define who a person becomes. The exchanges between her and Jojo are charming and often heartbreaking. Bringing out a tenderness quality in what one would describe as her best performance since Lost in Translation (2003), her character ensures the plot is not entirely lost in satire.
Waititi assembles a terrific supporting cast, bringing out the humour while maintaining the dramatic heart. Academy Award-winner Sam Rockwell (Vice) as the closeted gay Captain Katzenberg is hilarious. Disillusioned, incompetent and drunk, he’s somehow found himself in charge of a Hitler Youth camp with predictably disastrous results. Rebel Wilson (Isn’t it Romantic) reprises her usual goofy humour as Fraulein Rahm. I’m not the actresses biggest fan, but she definitely provides one of the biggest laughs—boasting “I’ve had 18 babies for Germany. Such a great year to be a girl.” Although her screen time’s limited, it’s noticeable that her faux German accent slips as she continues to do her Fat Amy schtick from the Pitch Perfect series.
A notable mention also has to go to newcomer Archie Yates as Jojo’s second-best friend (after Der Führer), Yorki. Like a miniature Nick Frost (Slaughterhouse Rulez) he’s thoroughly captivating and sidesplittingly funny. With lines such as “it’s definitely not a good time to be a Nazi” surrounded by crumbling buildings.
As a director, Waititi shows he still has the knack for colourful comic chaos that he brought to Thor: Ragnarock. Jojo Rabbit is packed with deadpan humour and visual gags. From the opening, there are touches of the Mel Brooks gag “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers (1967). Jojo runs down the street merrily shouting “Heil Hitler” to passing pedestrians so many times that it eventually becomes a running gag throughout. There’s also a hilarious German Shepherd joke played with the same inscrutable humour the director used in Eagle vs Shark. Further, a scene featuring Stephen Merchant (Fighting With My Family) looking like a Gestapo officer from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) juggles with one’s emotions. Blending the tense atmosphere of Schindler’s List (1993) and ‘The Diary Of Anne Frank’, it eventually plays out like a Monty Python sketch.
However, as much as Jojo Rabbit is a satirical comedy, the picture is surprisingly emotional. Waititi walks a tightrope balancing comedy and tragedy, that doesn’t always play out perfectly. However, he never fails to add the horrific realities of the Holocaust. An incredibly sombre scene occurs when Jojo and his mother are walking through the small town’s square. As Rosie stops to look at half a dozen Jewish corpses swinging from the gallows, she forces her son to look turning his head. Jojo asks “what did they do?” and his mum replies “whatever they could.” Later, a heartwrenching moment occurs in the same location as Jojo finds a familiar-looking pair of shoes. The director delivers a melancholy punch to the gut when your guard is down. Making no attempt at sanitising the realities of war or genocide, which makes the darker moments more poignant.
Jojo Rabbit is a story told from the perspective of a child and, with the help of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master), Waititi’s able to create a storybook sensibility throughout. There’s a colourful summertime aesthetic to the fictional German town Falkenheim that’s refreshing and unexpected for a WWII movie. There’s been great care taken from production designer Ra Vincent (Thor: Ragnarok) creating an innocent and optimistic town from the eyes of a child. With the slow-motion sequences around the Hitler Youth camp and POV angles from the child actors, Jojo Rabbit could’ve been taken directly from the Wes Anderson playbook. It’s almost a hybrid of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and Inglourious Basterds (2009).
The costume design by Mayes C. Rubeo (Avatar) is also remarkable and captures the 1940s fashion perfectly. Rosie looks flawlessly chic in every scene with vividly colourful outfits that juxtapose nicely with the doom and gloom atmosphere. The sound design from Michael Giacchino (Spider-Man: Far From Home) works nicely with the mise-en-scene to help create a childlike quality. From the opening scene of The Beatles’ “Komm gib mir deine Hand”/”I Want To Hold Your Hand”, to the closing rendition of David Bowie’s “Helden”/”Heroes”, each song fits perfectly. Knowing the lyrics “we can be heroes, just for one day” as Jojo and Elsa step outside rounds off Jojo’s coming-of-age tale with such emotion.
Jojo Rabbit is a movie that’ll be interpreted differently by everyone. It may need more than one viewing to truly comprehend the underlining message Waititi is trying to impart. However, there’s no question the director’s “anti-hate satire” is a stunning response to far-right radicalisation. The satirical edge of Jojo Rabbit contains traces of What We Do in the Shadows, whereas the underlining heart is that of The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016).
Waititi perfects the balance between the two, making you laugh one moment and cry the next, or both simultaneously. Understandably, something like Jojo Rabbit is going to divide people. A comedy about Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Third Reich can be a tough sell. However, if we don’t want history repeating itself, then it’s crucial viewing. Overall, it sits comfortably next to Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman (2018), raising questions about identity and acceptance that are deeply relevant today.
Cast & Crew
director: Taika Waititi.
writer: Taika Waititi (based on the novel ‘Caging Skies’ by Christine Leunens).
starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell & Scarlett Johansson.