JOJO RABBIT: Waititi Frolics Unsteadily With the Führer

My Verdict | ★★★☆☆

This self-billed ‘anti-hate satire’ from Taika Waititi attempts to follow in the goose-steps of Chaplin and Brooks by ‘sending up’ and delving into the Third Reich. Jojo Rabbit (based loosely on Christine Leunen’s novel Caging Skies) is an unsteady frolic about fear, fanaticism and friendship. Yet, the film’s deliberately dissonant tone does threaten to trivialise its difficult subject-matter.

Rowan Griffin Davis gives an adorably wicked debut as the ‘Boy in the Nazi Uniform’-Johannes “Jojo” Beltzer- a tousled, blond-haired ten-year old who could be the posterchild for the Reich. His uncontainable zeal for Nazism manifests itself through his daily activities (dancing around his small German town ‘heiling’ his neighbours with all the enthusiasm of Billy Elliot’s street tap-dance routine). His imagination too is fanatically fixed on the Führer (Taika Waititi), who has become his best ‘make-believe’ friend. An aggressively encouraging presence, more goofy big brother than father-figure, Adolf often pops in to remind the youth of his loyalty to blood and country.

But beneath his smart little uniform and loud protestations of Aryan superiority, Jojo is really a sensitive boy- coping silently with his sister’s death, absent father and a squeamishness to cruelty and violence. Confined to his home after getting slightly disfigured in a grenade training exercise at Hitler Youth Camp (an aesthetic decision rather than a medical one- “You’ll scare the other children” he’s told) Jojo discovers his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johanssan) is taking a more active stance in her weary derision of the Nazi regime. Hidden behind his late sister’s bedroom wall, Jojo finds Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a young orphaned Jew who his mother has taken in secretly. This unlikely meeting with have unintended consequences for the contemptuous, yet curious little Nazi.

Waititi combines lurid cinematography, slapstick humour and an anachronistic soundtrack to consciously ironise this Nazi society on-screen- as much a genre and period blend as Thor: Ragnarok.  Mix the Beatles’ German-version of ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ with upbeat 60s-style editing of Leni Riefenstahl’s iconic footage of the Nuremberg rallies and Hitler turns into a beloved pop-star being welcomed by groupies in their droves. It’s one of the rare moments in Jojo Rabbit that the director-writer-performer raises some pointed insight that fanaticism is not as far away as we might think. Overall, Jojo Rabbit is a fixated, highly spirited child’s-eye view of Nazi Germany, with the shadow of repression, war and the Holocaust only beginning to be cast as the comedic hijinks temper down.

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Rowan Griffin Davis and Thomas McKenzie give very convincing performances that have snappy comic timing, genuine friction and stirring poignancy. The breaking down of prejudice and growth of kinship between Jojo and Elsa is better conceived than the mawkish nonsense of The Boy In Striped Pyjamas.

Yet, this satirical depiction of Nazism reduces it to a cartoonish, vengeful, hate-fuelled ideology enacted by buffoonish adherents (especially Rebel Wilson’s bland caricature seemingly based on the Nazi villainess from The Last Crusade and Stephen Merchant’s send-up of the be-speckled creep in Raiders of the Lost Ark- Indiana Jones should not really be a key reference point for examining Nazism). It’s a portrayal so simplistic and outlandish as to be ripe for easy dismissal by both the characters and the audience. The only hint of something akin to Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ is Jojo’s sweet friend Yorke (Archie Yates), who accepts all the shifts in his life with merry, mindless abandon. Yorke doesn’t follow dubious orders, commit violence or take up new perspectives because he’s evil, cruel or frenzied (unlike Wilson or the other zealots) but because he’s doesn’t think about it. I’m not sure this is what the director intended or perhaps even most viewers will see this character (no doubt an incidental detail picked up by someone who has read Eichmann In Jerusalem too many times).

While the humour has a contemporary sensibility (fist-bumps and slang-use led by Waititi’s Adolf) the satire doesn’t really speak to the allure or dangers of present far-right fascism (and populism) in any meaningful way. It feels too whimsical and self-satisfied for that- safe at the distance of farce and hindsight.

This isn’t to say Jojo Rabbit isn’t ticklish, tender or prickly. Griffin Davis and McKenzie give very convincing performances that have snappy comic timing, genuine friction and stirring poignancy. The breaking down of prejudice and growth of kinship between Jojo and Elsa is better conceived than the mawkish nonsense of Bruno and Shmuel in The Boy In Striped Pyjamas. Griffin Davis has a magnificent, likeable on-screen presence for one so young and playing an unapologetic member of the Hitler Youth. He perfectly captures this anti-hero’s determination, truculence and vulnerability. McKenzie’s deadpan delivery but sharp wit foregoes comparisons to the kindly Anne Frank, despite her similar circumstances, or Shmuel. She can more than handle herself and, despite her mocking, doesn’t become a simple foil or object for Jojo’s gradual revelations out of antisemitic hatred. Like her deeply moving performance in Leave No Trace, McKenzie is able to convey a wisdom and world-weariness beyond her years.

Supporting performances from Johansson, Alfie Allen and Sam Rockwell also build the impression of a conflicted community beneath all the swastikas and salutes. Johansson unexpectedly brings real integrity to her single-mother saboteur, while Allen and Rockwell’s compassionate double-act show that even totalitarianism can’t destroy what one really feels inside. Waititi’s Hitler is surreal, flamboyant and chuckle-worthy (‘None of this is weird’ he reassures Jojo while tucked into the youth’s bed in full regalia), offering only increasing slivers of the dictator’s terrifying presence. While he can be a bit silly, Waititi’s keen performance turns the Führer’s desire for unwavering devotion into the pathetic petulance of a self-centred brat. It realises that the figure of fascistic devotion is often a shell into which the devotee merely projects their imagination, while the devoted one often exploits this for their own self-interested ends.

Waititi tries to make Jojo Rabbit both provocative and life-affirming. At a certain level, it’s good-natured cheekiness makes you want to sign up to it. However, it’s schmaltz and self-indulgence make it too cosy and safe. Satire’s easy when you’re able to point fingers elsewhere- but it can be sharp, even revelatory, when it makes you sit up and realise you might just be one of the crowd.