Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Taika Waititi, Christine Leunens (based on the novel by)
Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen
Jojo Rabbit is the story of your average Hitler Youth in 1940s Germany. He attends a Hitler Youth training camp with his friends. He deals with bullies and goes on bike rides with his mom. And he also has an imaginary best friend, a version of Adolf Hitler, portrayed by the film’s writer and director Taika Waititi. You know, the usual. Imaginary Hitler gives advice to young Jojo in a critical moment in his life as he discovers that his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl in their house.
This movie has a bonkers premise, one that will understandably put-off certain viewers before they’ve seen even a single frame. But from this premise, Waititi crafts a hilarious and beautiful satire on hate, love, compassion, empathy, and loneliness. While Waititi’s imaginary Hitler is given most of the film’s funniest lines, he’s used surprisingly sparingly. The crux of the film is the relationship between Roman Griffin Davis’s Jojo and Thomasin McKenzie’s Elsa, the young Jewish girl being harboured by Jojo’s mother. Both actors deliver fantastic performances. Jojo, indoctrinated as a Hitler Youth, has been taught to hate Elsa. It’s clear that he’s never seen a Jewish person, and once he does, his radicalism quickly fades away. He starts to see Elsa as a human being instead of the fictionalised version of Jewish people that he was taught to fear and hate. Even the slightest amount of compassion and empathy destroys the pillars that hatred is founded on. It’s an important message that has wide reaching relevance, even though Waititi’s film picks probably the most indisputable example of evil and hate in World History.
Films about the horrors of World War II and Nazi Germany are a dime a dozen. Films like Schindler’s List do an amazing job at showing both the best and worst of humanity. But what separates Jojo Rabbit, and what I really love about this film is how Waititi portrays the Nazis, and particularly Hitler, in this wonderfully crazy film. There’s no looming and terrifying Nazi like Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goth. No, Waititi takes a different approach. Simply put, every Nazi in the film is a moron. Characters played by Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, and Stephen Merchant are buffoons. The Nazi soldiers are literally children. Hitler is relegated to being the imaginary friend of a child. And he acts like a pouty and jealous toddler the moment Jojo starts spending more time with Elsa. In Waititi’s own way, he’s giving Hitler a massive middle finger by his idiotic portrayal in Jojo Rabbit. He’s in no way idolized or seen as an admirable leader. Instead, he’s pathetic and his followers are fanatic morons.
Of course, this flippant and admittedly hilarious rendition of Hitler and his followers could easily be construed as making light of an incredibly serious situation. Many audience members will take it that way, and I don’t begrudge them for it. However, I found that Waititi maintains a sense of seriousness by still showing the often harrowing results of the war. Sure, there’s a scene where Jojo has to dress in a robot costume and collect scrap metal for the war effort by wandering through the streets screaming “Metal for Hitler!” But there’s also a scene where Jojo and his mother, played by a wonderful tree Scarlett Johansson, see the corpses of anti-nationalists strung up in the city center. These often jarring reminders give the film a strong sense of gravity, despite the absurdity of many of its characters.
Others have taken issue that many of the jokes are at the expense of Jewish people. There are some horrible things said about Jewish people, usually to satirize how ridiculous the Nazi beliefs are. It is absolutely ludicrous that Jojo thinks that Jewish people have wings and sleep upside down in caves, because it is just so obviously untrue. It’s effective in deconstructing the obvious illogical nature of hatred. But it’s still hurtful things being said about a marginalized group of people. I’m not here to say what comedians and writers can or cannot say. Personally, it didn’t bother me, but it’s worth noting and evaluating before blindly recommending this to everyone I know.
Jojo Rabbit wonderfully blends wildly dark comedy with some shockingly sentimental moments. It’s a film where love wins over hate and where characters come together due to similarities despite their differences. This film won’t be for everyone, and that isn’t the fault of the audience. But in my opinion, this film is fantastic and immensely entertaining. And at the very least, it is so satisfying that Adolf Hitler’s Wikipedia page now says that he’s been portrayed by a Polynesian Jew. Fuck Hitler.
In one line: With a bananas premise and brutally dark comedy, Jojo Rabbit is a beautiful and charming satire that gives a massive middle finger to Hitler.
You can hear more from Matti by checking out The Movie Marathoners Podcast on Spotify, iTunes, Podbean and more! Find him on Twitter and Facebook at @moviemarapod!