Mix the humor and subject matter of Life is Beautiful with the aesthetics of a Wes Anderson project, and you have something close to Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. Moonreich Kingdom maybe. It’s a drastic undertaking by the Thor Ragnorak director, and not just because he took it upon himself to play Adolf Hitler since no one else would. Making anything remotely satirical about Nazi culture is awkward and deeply uncomfortable for blatant reasons. There’s never any right time to do it- scars of Nazism and the Holocaust simply never heal. Then again Waititi identifies as a Polynesian Jew so he has leeway to take his critique in the direction he sees fit.
And make no mistake: even though the film’s trailers suggest something on the whimsical side, this is a dark satire. Maybe a timelier one than we’d like to admit. After all, the United States has suddenly found itself with more open Nazis in recent years and a surprising amount of people willing to defend what should be indefensible. People are being indoctrinated into nationalist and xenophobic ideologies so this feels like a necessary middle finger to those beliefs. Yes Jojo’s story of tolerance for the individual against widespread governmental prejudice is simple and on the nose. But we sadly need more of those anti-hate messages right now.
For 10 year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), blind fanaticism to the Third Reich is everything. He even internalizes the part of Hitler being every Nazi Youth’s best friend quite literally, with Adolf (Waititi) appearing every now and then as an imaginary goofy propaganda pep talk bff. The boy’s fanaticism is on full display when he and his friend Yorki attend a Hitler Youth training program overseen by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who recognizes the war is lost but nevertheless seems chill preparing more boys for war. So do all the adults in the room. Sadly Jojo just doesn’t have that inner ruthless genocidal killer in him, as seen when he refuses to murder a rabbit for the Youth leaders.
That’s the thing about Jojo: its satire flows between moments of slapstick and seriousness. I mean the opening credits reconstruct Hitler rallies and cheering crowds with a German-dubbed rendition of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” as if the Triumph of the Will director suddenly invented music videos. At one point Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) notes how German culture is superior to everyone else in the world, before announcing a book burning like a special camp event. What “superior” culture does something that primitive? That’s the joke. Then Jojo fails to throw a grenade properly and we get a slapstick case on how not to handle items of death.
Hospitalized and left with a nasty facial scar, Jojo goes home with his mom Rosie (Scarlett Johannsson), only to learn that she’s been hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in his dead sister’s room. Elsa’s face is disheveled and dirty, yet she doesn’t resemble what Jojo learned about Jews from Nazi teaching, namely a whole lot of bupkis. Demon horns, hangs upside down like bats, attracted to shiny things- the kind of insane propaganda Nazis actually used in their children’s books. But because Jojo is an innocent little fascist, he and imaginary Adolf treat this all as quite literal.
With the threat of his mother’s arrest meaning Jojo can’t simply turn Elsa over to the Gestapo, he attempts to talk with her about Jewishness. At first it’s to help with his book about their hidden mind control powers (no really) and whatnot, but eventually he realizes she is quite… good. And he, despite being “massively into swastikas,” is, as Elsa puts it, “a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.” It’s a blunt response to how Jojo, scarred and idealistic, can’t recognize what’s happening around him. The war is a lost cause, everyone is resorting to insane tactics to keep Nazism standing, and some like his mom, who is secretly in the German Resistance, are glad the insanity is ending. The ideology Jojo grew up worshiping has revealed itself as a farce; he’s just learning all this in freefall.
Jojo Rabbit was adapted from the book Caged Skies and its quirkiness holds more in line with Waititi’s indie projects like Hunt of the Wilderpeople than Thor Ragnorak. Waititi added in the imaginary Hitler part himself. And while it doesn’t go all out framing the extent of Nazism’s inhumane undertones, it doesn’t really hide them either. There are moments when the film shows horrible images and doesn’t go for a joke because there’s nothing funny about it. When Jojo and Rosie come across some resistance members hung in the center square, the horror is made clear without ever stating what they did. “What they could,” Rosie says, noting the risks of standing up to the Nazis.
But the horrifying nature of the Nazi’s crimes stems from how they persuaded an entire nation to become accomplices. Everyone in the Reich more or less accepted they were participating in genocide and did something to advance the Holocaust, meaning that even the “nice Nazis” like Klenzendorf were still… well Nazis. This film never goes that far in its themes, despite one allusion to concentration camp trains. The humor instead holds up a billboard with the line “fascism is ridiculous!” reflected by how everyone’s buffoonery is an extension of them treating anti-Semitic propaganda as common knowledge. It’s also how the story jumps from goofy to dark in a nanosec. One moment a visit from SS Captain Deertz (Stephen Merchant) is silly because everyone can’t stop heiling the other six people in the room. The next you’re holding your breath because we know what the stakes are for Elsa.
I say this because, even though Jojo Rabbit’s satire isn’t deep or biting, it’s still quite funny thanks to the cast. All the adult actors have free rein to ham it up- Johannsson especially during a funny dinner scene- but the standout is Roman Griffin Davis as young Jojo, another great young casting by Waititi who holds his own against the adult actors. Davis’ scenes with McKenzie especially stand out for having the right emotional stakes of forcing a Nazi to reject all he’s been taught. And, much to the disapproval of Adolf, those beliefs go out with the historical outcome of World War II. It’s simple but done in a manner that’s, dare I say it, kind of charming.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars
A satirical Nazi coming of age movie- that’s definitely a first for me. Ultimately enjoyment of Jojo Rabbit will come down to whether you believe such a monstrous historical setting deserves an absurdist tone, or anything that resembles lightheartedness. But, as a Jewish writer who studied the Holocaust in school, I did find myself laughing at most of the jokes and performances. Tonally it’s messy but, by pushing a message about the dangers of pursuing fanaticism over love, it might just be what America needs right now.