During the opening sequence of Jojo Rabbit, Britpop plays over a montage of Nazi paraphernalia and propaganda. Archive footage shows Hitler reaching down from a podium to girls screaming to be with him, probably crying to have his babies. For all intents and purposes, Waititi has given Hitler the Beatles treatment, elevating him to the status of a rockstar. It’s this version of Hitler which, over the course of 108 minutes, stomps and dances all over like a 10-year-old run riot.
Taking one boy’s experience of the Second World War, Waititi subverts troubling subtexts of indoctrination to hilarious effect. It’s not necessarily a children’s film (Fox’s worried parent Disney might have something to say about it), and whether or not you choose to read it as a commentary on current politics and media is up to you. But regardless of the backdrop, during the screening there were laughs, there were tears, and at the end there were huge smiles and plenty of chatter. I’d never thought I’d say this about a Holocaust drama, but it’s a film that brings people together.
Director: Taika Waititi
Release date: September 8, 2019 (TIFF); October 5, 2019 (LFF)
Jojo (Roman Griffith Davis) is not your ordinary 10-year-old. This Hitler youth fanatic is obsessed with Hitler to the point of working himself into a frenzy first thing in the morning. Although courageous in spirit, he earns the nickname ‘Jojo Rabbit’ after he fails to kill a rabbit as a test during his Hitler Youth camp. Toying with the wartime ditty “Run, Rabbit, Run,” the name belies not only a diminished Hitler character, but also Jojo’s maturation from a fearful child into a world-weary 10-and-a-half-year-old.
Jojo’s ultimate aim in life — to befriend the Führer — is spun off course when Jojo discovers that his mother has been hiding a Jew in their house. Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie) complicates his serious intent by mocking his hatred of the race, playing along with his gross exaggerations to scare him into submission. But as the two spend more time together, both their views are tipped upside down. Roberto Begnini achieved a similarly bright tone in Life is Beautiful, as did the adaptation of Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief. But the danger seen from a child’s eyes somehow this time isn’t diminished — it’s more authentic and more extreme.
Waititi’s Hitler is as grin-inducing as expected, and while I expected to see more of him, he’s able to laugh at himself liberally without saturating the picture. Imaginary Hitler acts as Jojo’s conscience and encourager throughout the picture, for better or worse. The two begin with a fun and encouraging relationship but as Jojo begins to shift in his worldview, they become more distant. In fact, there are whole sections of the film where Jojo doesn’t interact with or rely on him at all, allowing the character to unfold.
Scarlett Johansson plays Jojo’s wonderful mother, a beautiful dancer and a sensitive listener, kind soul, and sympathiser even during her son’s fanaticism. The film’s marketing seemed to limit her appearances so she made a wonderful surprise. The political power-play between mother and son is expertly delivered, and I wonder how much is scripted, owing to the pitch-perfect delivery, and how much (if any) has been improvised. The distinction of Waititi’s screenplays are that they are almost invisible: dialogue rolls out as if everyone is a natural poet, comedian or madman.
One element of the film that was self-conscious, though, was the composition of shots with vibrant colours. It resembled a Wes Anderson picture in many ways, canted framing occasionally used as we follow Jojo, as if to say: “Let’s look at this story from another perspective.” The composition of the film itself is part of the beauty of a film that could easily be written off as pure satire. No, in fact it demands to be taken seriously. Bach-like chorales and German lieder (melodic 19th-century songs) reminiscent of Schubert play over the moments of greatest tension.
And the attention to detail reveals how well considered the comedy is. A magazine entitled Ja Hitler! is Nazi Germany’s answer to Ok! magazine. Jojo’s uniform, bedroom walls and the rest of the Hitler Youth are not adorned with swastikas, but with AC/DC lightning bolts — easily interchanged, of course. Waititi’s passion for, and perceptive takes on, pop culture are here in full force, as the film follows familiar tropes without slipping too much into pastiche.
A fantastic cast form the backdrop of the main action. With endearingly clipped enunciation, Jojo’s second best friend Yorki (the adorable Archie Yates) cheerfully accepts his place in the pecking order and goes about life as simply as Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Akin to his Dixon in Three Billboards, Sam Rockwell plays German Hitler Youth leader Captain Klenzendorf. Booted from the actual army and resigned to supervising children, his bitterness and closeted urges have no choice but to manifest in the form of spangly capes. The blasé attitude with which he confronts his situation — “Oh, heil Hitler, guys” — is perfectly paired with Rebel Wilson’s equally fantastic Fraulein Rahm (“I’ve raised 18 kids for Germany. It’s great being a girl.”) The quality of the comedy can’t be understated.
Comedy and tragedy are balanced on a knife’s edge (a literal knife — Jojo has to carry one at all times), and Jojo eventually realises the futility of war and the importance of love, not hate. The film ends with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke: “Let everything happen to you / Beauty and terror / Just keep going / No feeling is final,” to sum up the sentiment. A man who’s created some of the funniest cinema in recent years and who has become a household name for escapist action reveals himself not only as a satirist but as a thinker, a sensitive observer and as someone who keeps things in perspective at all times.
It might lack the pedal-to-the-metal pacing of other Waititi films, but he isn’t afraid of humour. There’s a tendency in the festival circuit to err towards the serious and gloomy. But he’s written a crazy, fantastical film which is a perfect antidote to the darkness we see every day. For that reason I think Jojo Rabbit will take off commercially as well as critically: it’s not elitist. In fact, it blows raspberries at the biggest elitists in history and winks at the audience, letting you know it’s ok to leave the serious stuff out and have a bit of fun.