Nazism is a very touchy subject, even nearly 80 years after its downfall. To take on the Third Reich in a filmic comedy, with Hitler as a little boy’s imaginary friend: that is a whole different echelon of risk. Kiwi director Taika Waititi decided to take on the subject in his latest film: Jojo Rabbit (2019).
Jojo Rabbit follows Johannes “JoJo” (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten-year-old boy who is ecstatic to join the Nazi Youths in the early 1940s. He lives in a small German town with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who is seemingly not as enthusiastic about Nazism as her son. Jojo is bullied at the Youths training, as he is incapable of strangling a rabbit, thus he is monikered: Jojo Rabbit. However, Jojo finds comfort by frequently speaking to his imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi).
Waititi has shown the cinematic world his prowess at bringing about a unique and hilarious form of comedy, from his mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014) about vampires, to his own Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok (2017). In Jojo Rabbit he is forced to dig deeper, utilizing his comedic and satiric chops as well as finding a more serious dramatic thread. This is achieved thanks to the clash of Jojo and a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) who is being hidden by Jojo’s mother. It is with this developing relationship that the choice of Waititi as the film’s director is appreciated. We go from the propagandistic showcases Jojo sees at the Youth camps (heavily utilizing comedy), to its attempted application to real people (melding into drama). It is a balance that Waititi achieves between ridiculing the Nazi system and acknowledging the horrors and fear perpetrated. Yet, the genius of Jojo Rabbit is less in its comedic and dramatic moments and more in its ability to humanize its characters. It is easy to form caricatures of Nazis in a satire, and yet Waititi is able to lend an empathy to even the chief Youth instructor (Sam Rockwell). Thus, much bolder than ridiculing Hitler, Waititi goes into humanizing Nazis.
The choice of Jojo as a narrator, gives the film the naïve and innocent perspective of a child. This allows the complexities of fascism and the Nazi movement to be simplified, so that we understand its appeal to young men (a sense of belonging in an ridiculed nation). The film acts very much as a search for masculinity, as Jojo is torn between his fear and love of being in his mother’s arms, and his pressure to be a ruthless killer. The film is able to find an answer to this question by bathing Jojo and his journey in the reality of a blind ideology. While Joker (2019) showed how emasculated adults utilized violence to find comfort, Jojo Rabbit finds the answer in human connection (something Joker also pointed at).
The film is truly an ensemble piece with an incredible direction by Waititi bringing about multi-dimensional performances from each actor. The child actors were are impeccable with both their comedic timing as well as their emotional confusion. Griffin Davis in the eponymous role is a true revelation, having a surprising amount of comedic and dramatic weight to carry through the film, which he does so spectacularly. McKenzie already surprised audiences in the survivalist Leave No Trace (2018), but she furthers viewers’ appreciation of her as a performer with a much more different and confident role in Jojo Rabbit, becoming the key to Jojo’s emotional conversion and growth into a man. Waititi is utterly hilarious at Hitler, to the point that just seeing him enter a scene already has one giggling in their seat. Johansson, meanwhile, is given one of the most complex roles she’s had since her big break-out in Lost in Translation (2003). There simply seems to be so much content pent up in Johansson’s character that her short presence on screen makes her every scene rich and superfluous. Even the smaller bit-characters like Rockwell’s Captain, Alfie Allen as his side-kick, and the young Archie Yates as Jojo’s only friend Yorki are tremendous.
In the end, Jojo Rabbit was a bold premise to pull off and yet Waititi went beyond the expectation. The film serves as a funny satire as well as finding an incredible balance to Jojo’s ideological transformation. The dimensions that the Kiwi director is able to give each character as well as the unfairly homogenized Nazi Germany, add to the power of his message of reconciliation with oneself in order to find one’s place in the world.