And we’re back. We welcome the year of film that will be 2020 with its first offering, Taiki Waititi’s first film since 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, a film that I had mixed feelings towards if I am being honest. I found it comedic to the point of being off-putting, with a misunderstanding of genre and tone that was a poor reflection on the people making it. Waititi’s signature wit may be much better placed on a project like this, where dark satire will be the order of the day, but could have struggled against the encompassing blackness of the setting and the subject matter: how exactly does one get laughs out of life in World War II-era Germany?
Well, even if I had a degree of disdain for his last film, there were two reasons why I felt that Waititi could pull it off. The first is that the man has a great comedic track record, and even if I felt that such comedy when applied to an apocalyptic superhero drama can be grating, I’m happy to give the man behind What We Do In The Shadows some leeway. The second is The Death Of Stalin, and to a lesser extent The Producers, films I had in mind the most in terms pre-viewing comparisons. They both managed to get a huge amount of laughs out of extremely serious subject matter, and still be good fare otherwise: in other words, Waititi can ride the trail that Armando Ianucci blazed a few years ago. Was he able to do that, with this excellent cast propelling him along? Or is Jojo Rabbit too much for subject matter that should be treated with more reverence?
Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a ten-year-old boy living with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) in Nazi Germany during the final stages of the Second World War, dealing with an absent father and family bereavement by becoming increasingly jingoistic. When he discovers that his mother is hiding young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), Jojo slowly comes to reevaluate his own beliefs, despite the protests of his imaginary friend Adolph Hitler (Waititi).
Much like Thor: Ragnarok, I fell like Jojo Rabbit is a film that will be loved by most, but disliked by a minority who cannot get past what it is attempting to do in the blending of drama and comedy, even dark comedy. Thinking about it, I have to place myself, for the most part, in the camp of the minority. I liked large parts of the movie, but the pendulum swings so rapidly between the audaciously fantastical comedy and extremely grim drama that it was hard to find a firm foothold in the world of Jojo Rabbit.
Let’s start with the drama. At its heart, it is a film that serves as a suitable allegory for the modern political world, as we focus on a young man radicalised to support a far-right fascistic viewpoint despite said viewpoint lacking anything in the way of logic, reason or value. Young Jojo, played with real emotional power by Griffen Davis (this is probably the best child acting I’ve seen in a while), opens the film by reciting pro-Hitler oaths ahead of a Hitler Youth camp, wherein he is taught, among other things, the best ways to spot Jews. But Jojo is no dyed-in-the-wool Nazi, despite his protestations of wanting to grow up to be a personal guard of Hitler: he gains the titular nickname when he refuses to demonstrate his national socialist ardour by wringing the neck of a rabbit, and from there it is a gradual journey to de-radicalisation and an acceptance of the kind of ideals the Nazi’s did their best to eradicate in Germany.
The cipher for that journey is Thomasin McKenzie’s Elsa, a young Jewish girl who has lost everything, and whose only defiance is to stay alive day-to-day. She and Jojo share an engaging relationship, that moves from insults thrown back-and-forth into a mutually beneficial thing. Elsa is meant to be the demon of Nazi propaganda, but Jojo slowly realises that she is just like him and, if this is true, then everything the Nazi’s have taught must be called into question also. There is a sickly sweet romantic element to their interactions, but in a pure, puppy love kind of way. The problem is that Elsa is somewhat empty as a character in her own right, something for Jojo to base his own evolution around: the Holocaust is only ever briefly acknowledged as something happening, and Else serves mainly as a sort of quasi-prize for Jojo to seek to attain through his gradual resort to an anti-hate stance.
Better in terms of female characters is Scarlett Johansson’s Rosie, a single mother with some secrets of her own, trying to instill positivity and love in her radicalised son, both from her own hard-set belief and because she has to prepare him for the imminent end of the war (“not going so well”, as Sam Rockwell’s German Army Captain admits early on; while its a bit vague, it appears to be the final months of the conflict in 1945, with Americans and Russians closing in on the unnamed town from either side). Johansson is reserved but moving, portraying a certain exhaustion in the character masked by genuine efforts to get her son back on the right path.
Jojo following that path is engaging enough, but the constant resort to humour is an issue. It isn’t that the jokes aren’t funny, because they are. Rockwell (a representation of a body of men more interested in defending the fatherland than Nazi ideology), his toady Alfie Allen and overly-enthusiastic Nazi Party member Rebel Wilson all get the chance to engage in black, almost macabre, humour. This includes the all-too-casual way they hand out guns and grenades to children, or the ridiculous necessity of “Heil Hitlering” every member of a Gestapo squad (headed by Stephen Merchant, channeling Toht, who fully approves of Jojo’s “blind fanaticism”) individually.
Some of Jojo and Elsa’s interactions are laced with ribald humour as she takes advantage of his many ridiculous beliefs of Jews (when Jojo asks her where her horns are, she deadpan tells him “They grow when you’re aged 21”) and Johansson demonstrates her own under-rated sense of comedic timing, especially in a very sweet scene where she imitates Jojo’s absent father. And, of course, there is Waititi’s Hitler, a paternal stand-in, a warped imitation of “der Fuhrer” that ranges from wryly amusing to creepily authentic: the director is having a ball in the role, clearly wanting to be a bit like The Great Dictator, and his on-screen presence also allows him to interact with Davis very engagingly.
The inclusion of an imaginary Hitler is one of the biggest difference from Caging Skies, the Christine Leunens novel Waititi is sort of adapting (the book places a much bigger emphasis on Jojo’s obsession with Elsa). But its hard to really get the effect of the jokes, when they follow or proceed some moments of very affecting darkness. Germany in 1945 is never going to be a happy place, and Waititi portrays this through some very sudden swerves in the plot, most noticeably one around the hour mark that radically alters the direction of the story, and not in the best kind of way. Further, the elements of the Nazi party or German Army represented in the film are mostly nonthreatening comical figures, or at worst high school bullies, and you can’t help but feel that the true evil of the regime is not being presented properly (of all the characters, Jojo actually espouses the most virulent antisemitism, and from the off its clear there is no substance behind his pronouncements).
Only Merchant’s Gestapo agent carries any sense of menace, and that is messed around by his own resort to humour. It’s hard to feel comfortable with the jokes as a result, a situation where the laughs feel wrong as soon as they have formed in your throat. Perhaps discomfort is Waititi’s intention, but I feel it does not make Jojo Rabbit a good film. The Death Of Stalin had a similar problem, but the strength of its dramatic portion more than saved it, while in The Producers Nazi Germany, through “Springtime For Hitler”, was never really the point of the story, it could have been anything shocking.
Jojo Rabbit cannot really say the same, though I would be lying if I said I did not appreciate the message it is putting out. It’s at the same time both an ode to the power of positivity, a rejection of hate as a the basis for any kind of ideology and a dirge for toxic masculinity, that so easily leads to the perils of Nazism. It is a textbook for approaching de-radicalisation, with the steps involving positive reinforcement and exposure to the realities of the “other”. Waititi, who has Jewish ancestry, has spoken himself about how wrong-headed it is to merely tell a child not do do something, and Jojo Rabbit follows through on this, with a “show, don’t tell” philosophy in how Jojo is exposed directly to the lies of the Nazi government. I may not feel that the execution of Waititi’s vision is as good as it could have been, but its central theme is undoubtedly one to applaud, and one that is sure to enrage the MAGAheads who may squirm a tad if they view. As Elsa says when presented with a claim that Jews can’t compare to true Aryans, “we’re just like you, only human”. Or, as another character says more pointedly late on, “Fuck off Hitler”.
Waititi directs a good looking production, one that places a very obvious emphasis on facial expression in Davis and McKenzie, often placed dead centre of the frame or on either side of the crawlspace wall that usually separates them (Wes Anderson is an obvious inspiration, though Jojo Rabbit isn’t a patch on The Grand Budapest Hotel). An early scene where Jojo reluctantly takes part in a book burning, only doing so because of the rapturous glee being demonstrated by his fellow Hitler Youth, makes the point pretty quickly that he is just a “ten-year-old boy who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club”. There are some neat flourishes here and there, most notably a long take of Johansson dancing with herself and a slow-motion glimpse at the grim absurdity of the German war machine in what must be May 1945.
Aside from that Jojo Rabbit is a film that wants us to consider the importance of colour in otherwise drab surrounds and amid a drab story: items of red and purple, be they noticeable shoes or flapping butterflies, are recurring visual motifs, marked out among the uniformity of Nazi Germany in clothes and environment. One must also note the inclusion of German language version of hits from the 60’s and 70’s: an opening montage of Hitler rallies plays to the German version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (“Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand”), appearing to compare obsession with the dictator with Beatlemania, and David Bowie’s “Heroes” (“Helden”) forms a suitable addition to the finale.
Jojo Rabbit is ultimately a frustrating experience. There is so much to like here: the general story being told is an interesting one, there are plenty of good performances with no bad ones, it looks good and it works as a drama film and as a comedy if you were to view such things separately (though neither side is anywhere close to Waititi’s high water mark). Moreover, it has the kind of resonant message that should be drummed into the male youth of today, that reversion to hate leads to unfulfillment and misery.
But Waititi isn’t able to pull it all off. The dissonance between the reality of Nazi Germany and the humour he wants to impart is difficult to get beyond for me, the Elsa character is underwritten and, in presenting what can only be described as a fantasy version of late-war Germany, Waititi could be accused of under-representing one of the greatest crimes in human history in favour of jokes about Hitler not having only one ball, but four. His next project is a dramatisation of Next Goal Wins, one of my favourite documentaries, and I can only hope that he doesn’t aim to make a total skit of that as well. Jojo Rabbit is a film I don’t want to dismiss entirely, carrying plenty of worthwhile film-making in it, so for that reason, it is recommended. But I would not go so far as to say it is a good film.
(All images are copyright of Fox Searchlight Pictures).