At a time when being a Nazi for many does not seem like a terrible proposition, Jojo Rabbit should have been a film to tear at the satirical jugular of recent history’s worst fanatical movement.
Taika Waititi on paper was surely the right writer-director to make this happen too. He has taken a hilarious, incisive scalpel to the traditionally serious supernatural tropes of vampirism and lycanthropy in What We Do in the Shadows and parlayed that eccentricity into his colourful sojourn into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Thor: Ragnarok, so you can imagine him looking at Nazism and understanding what he needed to take aim at for comedic purposes. The trailers suggest that to be the case; promoting Jojo Rabbit as a perky, plucky zany, ‘Allo ‘Allo-style comic adventure with Waititi hamming it up as an imaginary Adolf Hitler. Only… that’s not really what we get.
Jojo Rabbit is a surprisingly melancholy, somber affair, particularly after an opening first half an hour which establishes the life of young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten year old member of the Hitler Youth toward the end of World War Two who finds himself tormented by older boys who question his strength as a budding Nazi, especially given he’s doted on by his mother Rosie (an accented Scarlett Johansson). There are japes. There is dancing. There is a lightness of touch. Then he finds Jewish girl Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie) being hidden at his home by his mother behind a wall and Waititi moves away from the Nazi lampooning into different, altogether more difficult tonal territory.
It’s that second act that causes Jojo Rabbit to collapse in on itself, losing its initial inertia as it attempts to use Jojo as a prism to explore difference, extremist thought, and naturally how, as Jojo’s friend Yorki (Archie Yates) puts it “definitely not a good time to be a Nazi”.
On paper, you wonder how Waititi even got Jojo Rabbit made, given ostensibly it asks you to like and care about a young Nazi in training who spends the film slowly questioning and steadily abandoning his built-in hateful ideology.
It feels like a project Waititi–who adapted it from Christine Leunens’ book Caging Skies–only managed to get financed on the back of his recent success as a deft hand when it comes to, shall we say, ‘sweet satire’; he is not a filmmaker like Armando Iannucci, who takes a cutting swipe at particularly the political spectrum in films such as In the Loop or The Death of Stalin. Waititi often has affection for even his grumpiest and most difficult characters; take Jemaine Clement’s Vladislav from What We Do in the Shadows or Sam Neill’s reluctant father figure Hec in the wonderful Hunt for the Wilderpeople (easily Waititi’s best work to date) – these are characters who steadily, over the course of two very different films, Waititi encourages us to embrace and it works. The trick is harder to pull off with Sam Rockwell’s kindly, relaxed Nazi General Klenzendorf because even though it’s the hugely charming Sam Rockwell, he is still playing a Nazi General and, y’know, it’s hard to care about Nazis.
It’s a little unfair in a way to suggest Waititi wants this because his Germany is only quasi-realistic. It’s more of an inverse fairytale Nazi heartland, filled with quaint towns and green forests, redolent of a certain colour and summery delight, where kids aren’t taught about science or nature but rather how Jews are born literal monsters and quite how to specifically hate them.
This is played for deliberate comic effect with a satirical eye from the beginning; look at how the film begins with a German version of the Beatles ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ set to Nazi rally footage which equates worship of the Fuhrer to Beatlemania. It’s all about the brainwashed fanaticism behind such an ideology as Nazism, born out of the hate for difference, skewed in overtly comic terms; just look at how Waititi plays Adolf Hitler as a camp imaginary friend for Jojo, who actually serves as a childish ideal of what an indoctrinated youth should be. It’s as Elsa says: “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”
This is the fundamental heart of Jojo Rabbit and, like all of Waititi’s work, there is a surfeit of heart, always in the right place – indeed one scene is particularly moving, you’ll know it when you get there. Jojo is not born hateful, not born to worship an ideology, he is rather like all children a product of his environment and his own personal environment contradicts with the bigger cultural one. He may be growing up in Nazi Germany but his mother is a resistor, sheltering Jews, and very much works to imbue Jojo with a counter-balance to what the Nazi regime are teaching him.
Elsa is the liberalisation of this contradiction and her strength and kindness, and her determination to walk proud as a Jew in the most inhospitable environment, cuts to Waititi’s central message: we can resist, we can think differently, and we can change our point of view if we communicate with her. Rosie humanises her, as Elsa recounts: “Your mother took me in. She’s kind. She treats me like a person”. Jojo writes a book about all of the things wrong with Jews but learns, through Elsa, just how false that ideology is. What he learns is everything wrong with being a Nazi.
It’s why, in the end, the Nazism really isn’t the point. It’s just the window dressing, filled with recognisable tropes that everything from the aforementioned British sitcom Allo Allo via Mel Brooks’ The Producers through to Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade have mocked ever since the end of World War Two – taking heinous atrocities, a fanatical ideology, and the most purely distilled racial hatred and showing it up for how facile, stupid and ultimately futile it is.
Jojo Rabbit certainly does just that, filled with ideas that resonate with our current global fascination with extremism and right-wing thinking – the only problem is that Waititi’s script and direction, particularly during a sagging mid-section, completely loses sight of the froth and fun that Jojo Rabbit initially proposes to contain. Even with the director popping up to lark about as the Fuhrer, or Stephen Merchant jumping in as a Nazi inquisitor allowing for an extended ‘Heil Hitler!’ gag, it’s just never as engaging, enjoyable or importantly sharp as it could or should be.
It almost feels like an extended version of a sketch in That Mitchell & Webb Look, where David Mitchell’s Nazi asks “Hans… are we the *baddies*?”. Jojo even at one point asks “I’m the enemy?”, which taps into how our viewpoint has an impact on the narrative we choose to place ourselves in. Do modern day extremists, Neo-Nazis, or white supremacists think they’re the bad guys? Probably not. What is obvious to everyone else is utterly alien to you until, as an extremist, you are confronted with that alternative point of view, and Jojo as an impressionable child is open enough to accept new ideas. Waititi is a director with a lot of faith in youth to have the wisdom adults often struggle to attain, and Jojo Rabbit is another example of this. What disappoints is in how little Jojo Rabbit flies while exploring these fascinating ideas.
Taika Waititi has made, ultimately, a film which is saying a lot of interesting things, just not in a particularly successful way. Jojo Rabbit should have turned out a better product.