There was no way I was expecting JOJO RABBIT to be this sweet. It’s a film with a massive heart, and a massive heart is what’s needed to fight Nazis. To borrow Spider-Man Noir’s self-descriptor, Taika Waititi likes fighting Nazis, a lot!
WWII is drawing to a close, though the Nazis don’t know it yet. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) can’t wait to go on a Hitler Youth camp and prove himself worthy of the Fatherland, egged on all the way by his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Things do not go according to Jojo’s plan, and back home with his loving but run-ragged mother (Scarlett Johansson) things get a lot more complicated.
Jojo isn’t a bad kid, he’s just growing up in bad times. Ultimately, it’s the story of him becoming his own person, of realising that adults lie and deceive and manipulate to get ahead in the world, children especially. No one is born a Nazi, they are made. The idea that every German kid would be queuing to join the Hitler Youth, a cool club for the best children, the future of the country, is chillingly plausible. Jojo has to learn to listen to himself, his downtrodden innate humanity, rather than the pumped up, slick hate machine that surrounds him. “You’re not a Nazi Jojo. You’re a ten-year-old that likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club”.
The early stretch at the Hitler Youth camp, “the best weekend ever!” is bright and breezy, cheeky and gentle, almost CARRY ON, until a rabbit is threatened to prove a point and grenades are handed out to kids with only the most cursory of safety warnings. As the German seasons change, so too does the tone of the film, drastically. Winter draws in and there is trouble ahead for Jojo and Germany, the humour becoming more sparing and of the gallows variety.
Hitler is presented as a streetwise older brother, then an idolised rockstar, then a joke, then a sad and pathetic monster. Waititi isn’t on screen much in the grand scheme of things, but every one of Adolf’s appearances serves an important purpose of marking where Jojo’s heart and soul is at. When Jojo finally gets the courage to say no to his former best friend, his hero, to put aside childish things, he grows up and realises who he is.
Roman Griffin Davis is a revelation in the title role. He has the bluster and unshakable confidence in his understanding of the world typical of ten year-old boys, but also an ingrained and carefully disguised uncertainty in himself, a fragility, not to mention killer comic timing. Waititi relishes playing Hitler as a camp cartoon character, Stephen Merchant’s steals his scene as a banal, friendly-evil Gestapo officer and Scarlett Johansson and Tomasin McKenzie both convey resilience and pathos in abundance as Jojo’s mother and Jew in hiding Elsa, respectively.
As per usual with a Waititi project, the gag rate is so rapid-fire you’re in danger of missing a joke from still laughing at the previous one. Silly satire (how will they ever stop saying Heil Hitler if new people keep arriving?), childish insults (“that one-armed pirate Stauffenburg”), good old-fashioned slapstick and some really quite surreal asides that I won’t spoil make sure you never quite find your footing, in a good way. But just when you think the fun will never stop, Waititi waits a beat and drags you back down to reality.
This is a really effective modern fable with a fine old moral. It’s been criticised in some circles for trivialising the War and Naziism but that’s where the genius of it lies. It exposes the ridiculousness of that terrible movement who were able to commit atrocities without limit as soon as they’d gathered enough fans. We fundamentally underestimate evil as a species and can only comfortably mock it after the threat has died down. What we need to do is take the rise of fascism seriously while it’s happening around us and fight it with all our might. SSP