Based on Christine Leunens’ Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit is a very different kind of war film to Sam Mendes’ 1917, advertised just moments before. The brainchild of director Taika Waititi, who also tops the bill as Adolf Hitler, Jojo Rabbit leaves you genuinely unsure whether to laugh, shudder or cry, lurching so unexpectedly from humour to despair that it’s difficult to define altogether. And that’s a good thing.
Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a ten-year-old Fuhrer superfan who’s not quite evil enough for the Hitler Youth, despite being best friends with Hitler – in his head, anyway. An act of defiance, spurred on by Hitler, goes horribly wrong, leaving Jojo to deliver the mail while his able-bodied peers prepare to become German soldiers under the single watchful eye of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his stooge, Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson), a kind of Nazi version of Rebel Wilson.
Jojo’s faith remains unshaken, until he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been sheltering a Jewish girl, Elsa, in their loft. Knowing that the local Gestapo will be after his mum if he snitches, Jojo, who dreams about slaying Jews, comes to an agreement with the girl living in the walls. And he’s perplexed: she’s not the fire-breathing monster he’d expected, and she seems rather nice. Nor is he a Nazi, Elsa tells him. She’s right: he’s a typical ten-year-old boy who wants to be a part of something, even if that means believing in all kinds of ludicrous rubbish.
How can Jojo learn to live with Elsa when it goes against everything he’s been taught by his politics and his imaginary friend? And will he listen when Elsa tries to persuade him that Jewish people are just like everyone else – scared, tired of war, desperate to be reunited with their families? This is the denouement of war presented through the naivety of a child, one shattered by the realities of conflict. Just as Jojo’s understanding of the world, drilled into him by doctrine and an unthinking desire to belong, is brought tumbling down by Elsa, so the slick facade of Nazi rule rapidly disintegrates as the Allies lay ruin to the city. The film’s final scene is startling but brilliant, capturing the confusion that war has brought to Jojo and Elsa’s lives and their search for a way to cope.
Waititi’s cartoonish Hitler plays a less prominent role than expected. Above all, this is the story of Jojo and Elsa. As for Hitler, his creeping progression from buffoonish imaginary pal to the spitting, flailing despot we recognize from those grainy newsreels is reflective of Jojo’s enlightenment. Even in moments of dark comedy, Jojo Rabbit says something important about the catastrophe of fascism – for those who blindly followed it, and those who fought against it. As Allied tanks roll in, Fraulein Rahm has taken to arming children with bazookas, before she charges into the carnage herself. There’s room for humour even as Germany falls, but it’s never insensitive. I don’t think it’s meant to be a comedy. Rather, it’s meant to be discordant. It was a time when nothing quite made sense, nobody quite knew what to believe any more.
It’s got a touch of The Death of Stalin about it but, to me, the comedic element serves to emphasize the tragedy of Germans caught up in the fatherland’s collapse. At first, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or recoil. The initial Hitler Youth scenes verge on a Horrible Histories sketch, an almost patronising Nazi best hits compilation, replete with book burning, abundant heils and some truly preposterous antisemitism. It’s so in-your-face, so unsubtle, it makes you wince. It’s easy to see why the film divides critics. Is it ever right to satirise something so grotesque, so devastatingly inhuman, so wrong? You soon realise that if you’re laughing, you’re not laughing because the Nazis are funny. No, you’re laughing because they don’t realise how ridiculous they are. Waititi wants to remind us that fascism is totally absurd. Jojo Rabbit sets out to laugh in the face of Nazism and blind, idiotic racial hatred, while never underplaying its devastating impact on its millions of victims.
It’s an odd film, but war is odd – and so is fascism. Jojo Rabbit manages to ridicule the Nazi cult of personality, while powerfully underlining its murderous reality. It’s a delicate balance to strike but I think Waititi just about manages it, helped by standout performances from Davis and Johansson. And in a world where there are children not far off Jojo’s age flaunting their ‘alt-right’ credentials across the internet, I think there’s something important that we can learn from this film.