This is a film about indoctrination. Jojo Rabbit, based on the novel Caging Skies by Christian Leunens, is directed and written by Taika Waititi, and is most likely the first Nazi comedy that’s as subversive as it is boundary-pushing.
Telling the story about Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis), or as he’s called Jojo, a young boy who is part of the Nazi Youth in Germany, Jojo Rabbit starts with a German version of a Beatles song played over real life footage of Nazi salutes and goes from there, middling together comedy against a story that many people are familiar with, but this time, with the charm of a Wes Anderson movie.
But the real drawcard and difference in Jojo Rabbit is the inclusion of Waititi himself dressed up as an “imaginary friend” of Jojo’s, who happens to be a fantastical version of Adolf Hitler himself. But things take a turn for Jojo when he discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a Jewish girl in their home. Torn between his indoctrinated Nazi mindset and his familial values, Jojo comes to his own moral decision making.
It’s a fabulous cast with talent abound. Griffin Davis puts on one of the best child actor performances, with his touching moments and palatable anger at times. He makes you laugh and cry. You believe that this boy really does love the Fuhrer, but also see how this sort of fanaticism is a slippery slope to the events that the history books cover in detail. Johansson is also strong, in a role that I wish got her more exposure for her delicateness and subtle emotion. Waititi is also brilliant as the fantasy Hitler. Guest performances from Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen also add to the comedy of the story, though their broad performances err more on the over the top caricature at times. Jojo’s best friend Yorki played by Archie Yates is also superb in the role and a real highlight in a film full of them, as is Thomasin McKenzie as the Jewish refugee herself Elsa.
From the outset, the idea of the film is to laugh at this young boy being so indoctrinated and imagining Hitler by his side, before the real drama of the ethical dilemma of helping someone he’s been trained to hate comes along. But is this enough to sustain the purpose of the film? I don’t always know. Is indoctrination funny? And while we look back in retrospect at the Nazi situation and laugh at how youth like this are indoctrinated into performing horrendous acts, does that stand as a comedy piece in itself?
It’s a complicated thing to balance, but ultimately Waititi keeps the humanism throughout the story as we see Jojo’s ascent to empathy and tolerance. Towards the end of the film, the funny parts evaporate and the heart of the story really comes through. While the end is a bit fraught and overall the story isn’t greatly original (with the exception of comical Hitler), it’s the moments between that really solidify it as a great film. Scenes are deeply affecting. But Waititi’s idea that a child can show us the way out of ignorance and prejudice may be of little value in the real world. At least we have the movies.
Waititi’s Hitler really is the drawcard here, but stay for Griffin Davis, McKenzie and Johansson’s superb performances. Don’t forget to bring tissues.
It makes you sit up and think about what makes something funny. A Nazi boy filled with intolerance and hatred, indoctrinated by his society is not always the best way to come at a comedy. What if it was a KKK child in the US deep south? We can laugh at indoctrination, but if the underlying issues haven’t yet disappeared and there are still actions happening (though not to the same extreme extent), is indoctrination funny?
Originally published on Back Row, 10 December, 2019.