The black comedy “Jojo Rabbit” opens by connecting Hitler and the Beatles. With the German cover version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” playing in the background, archival footage shows the hysteria and youthful admiration of the German leader – it’s just like Beatlemania, only with swastikas and a racist creed. It shows Hitler not as a political or historical phenomenon, but as a cultural icon whose rallies are as exciting as an Elvis concert. A poster of Hitler hangs on the wall in a boy’s bedroom: Adolf Hitler superstar.
“Jojo Rabbit” is a self-aware addition to a list of comedies that have ridiculed the Nazis, ranging from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” through Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” to “Inglourious Basterds” by Quentin Tarantino. Director Taika Waititi breathes fresh life into well-worn, raw Nazi material no less than Tarantino did. With the image of the Nazi villain so entrenched in popular culture, Waititi tries to play with the range of audience expectations. His choice of recreating Nazi Germany through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy, for whom reality and imagination often intermingle, allows him to create a satire with a new twist.
The film is loosely based on a book called “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens, but the humor and infantile spirit (in the good sense of the word) are Waititi’s. With his unique touch, the New Zealander director has already shown these traits in two earlier movies, “Boy” (2010) and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (2016) – movies that also dealt with the inner lives of children. The success of these movies, which became the biggest blockbusters in New Zealand’s history, paved Waititi’s way to Hollywood. Marvel Studios picked him to direct “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017), which introduced humanity and enchantment to the universe of superheroes, something it had previously lacked. Now, in his second studio movie, he returns to the world of childhood. In his first two movies, the main characters were indigenous Maoris in the wilderness of New Zealand, but the transition to Nazism came naturally to him. Waititi’s father is Maori and his mother is Jewish.
The plot takes place in a German town at the end of World War II, when the Nazi defeat is almost palpable. This may be obvious to viewers, but not to the 10-year-old protagonist Johannes, Jojo for short, played by the excellent Roman Griffin Davis. Jojo lives alone with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), his dad having gone to war and not yet returned. Like all his classmates, he likes swastikas and knives, and he has posters of Hitler in his bedroom. The boy, born into a Nazi world, only wants to feel that he belongs and dreams of being a big and strong Nazi.
In a Hitler Youth summer camp, comically shown as led by an alcoholic officer (Sam Rockwell) and his loyal assistant (Rebel Wilson), Jojo is told to kill a rabbit as part of a horrific test of his manhood. He can’t do it, thus acquiring the nickname Jojo the Rabbit. To his fortune and regret, his life changes after he is involved in a painful accident that puts him out of commission for a few months. As he recovers at home, Jojo, now friendless, invents an imaginary friend in the form of Hitler, played by director Waititi.
This Hitler, of course, is not faithful to any reality except the one in Jojo’s imagination. Through the boy’s eye, Hitler is a partner in his games, his dealings with anxiety or just someone to practice the correct way of saying “Heil Hitler.” However, his convalescence also brings an encounter with a real character, a Jewish girl called Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), who is hiding in the attic. Since he’s never met Jews and has a wild imagination, this encounter is for him akin to meeting a monster or vampire. As he tries to face this threat and talk to Elsa, cracks appear in his worldview with regard to Jews and to his mother, the one who has hidden Elsa.
The sin of naivety
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The childish enthusiasm of his early movies serves Waititi well in portraying a society with distorted values. Choosing to place a child at the center of the movie, a child whose main sin is being naïve, allows the director to paint the boundaries between good and evil through an incessant dissonance. With humor that ranges from dry restraint to exaggerated nonsense, the main narrative tool is the abyss that opens up between what is said and seen on the screen and what viewers know about Nazi atrocities. The precise cinematography by Mihai Malaimare helps build a fantastical, rich and colorful world of a child who, like any child, is incapable of understanding his world and its implications. For him, a building destroyed by shelling can also be a playground. It’s a blurry space that includes Jojo’s partial and limited grasp on reality. He completes his understanding by applying his wild imagination.
Indeed, more than a satire on Nazis, “Jojo Rabbit” follows the patterns of a coming-of-age film, which in its emotional and visual world is more reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” than “The Great Dictator.” Jojo’s coming of age is largely an internal process that shakes up his world through the dialogue with Hitler, who is actually an extension of his subconscious. This infantilism serves him as a defensive wall. However, as for any child, the real world often breaches this wall and reality comes alive, bleeding and scarring. When this happens, the surrealist atmosphere suddenly shatters, charging the film with dramatic and perturbing content. Davis is one of the best child actors to appear on-screen in many years, skillfully expressing the range of emotions required of him.
Even though the imaginary Hitler takes center stage, two other relationships give the film its symbolic significance. The cat-and-mouse game he plays with Elsa is the central axis of Jojo’s life. Here, too, the child’s perspective sets the tone, and as their relationship builds, so do the cracks between him and his society’s values. However, this axis is also the movie’s weak point, since the character of the Jewish girl does not have the depth given to the protagonist and his mother. McKenzie can’t compensate for this with her talent, and it’s fascinating to watch how the young Davis carries each scene on his shoulders. And yet, the chemistry between these two achieves its purpose, also providing one of the most moving endings seen this year.
Jojo’s relationship with his mother provides the emotional anchor of the film, as well as its most beautiful moments. Rosie’s distress is well grounded in its time and place, but with Waititi’s script and Johansson’s acting, the mother’s dilemma acquires a powerful emotional charge that turns it into something universal and timeless. Johansson, in an excellent appearance, lives the intolerable tension of a merciful mother who’s forced to witness how a regime that stands for everything she opposes is reshaping her son.
This helplessness has a gender-related dimension: Rosie is a single mother living in an extremely patriarchal world which has deprived her of any authority. This indirectly sheds light on the character of Hitler as an expression of Jojo’s wish for a real father. Waititi already addressed the topic of a young boy and his imaginary friend – in that case Michael Jackson – in his movie “Boy,” where the friend was meant to compensate for the absence of a real father. Here, too, the boy’s imagination hits a glass ceiling: His mind can’t really meet his needs; it can only reflect his emotions. When he’s happy, Hitler is happy with him. When he’s beset by uncertainty, Hitler becomes an anxiety attack with a mustache. In either case, he’s not a real substitute for what’s missing at home.
With such a bizarre starting point and such wild humor, it’s surprising that “Jojo Rabbit” is ultimately almost a standard coming-of-age movie. Although Jojo is a Nazi, he expresses the growing pains of any boy or youth who discovers cracks in the perception of reality he acquires at school. In some respect, this is a step backward for the director, whose entry into Hollywood made him more restrained and less bold in comparison to his past films. However, the empathy, humanity and charming childishness that characterize Waititi’s films have not disappeared. With “Jojo Rabbit,” too, he proves to be one of the most intriguing creators to follow in contemporary filmmaking.
“Jojo Rabbit.” Directing and screenplay: Taika Waititi; Photography: Mihai Malaimare; Actors: Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson. 108 minutes.