Jojo Rabbit Review
In the summer of 2017, after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” and later murdering an anti fascist protester, Donald Trump infamously declared that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the march. Somewhat inexplicably, writer/director Taika Waititi has adopted this mentality for his own satirisation of fascism, Jojo Rabbit, seeking to redeem followers of history’s most evil regime in the name of making a point about our shared humanity. Many filmmakers have made excellent comedies set during the Third Reich - Waititi is the rare one to be both out of his depth in terms of finding humour in the material, and offering anything meaningful to say about the mob mentality of authoritarianism.
Jojo Rabbit is, quite frankly, the most misjudged film of the year, but not because of any transgressive potential as a satire. Waititi’s affinity for mawkish sentimentality, and his desire to make us empathise with members of the Nazi party even as they show no remorse for earlier beliefs or actions, makes for a deeply unpleasant experience; a film that wants to show the dangers of white supremacy, but becomes overburdened by redeeming its one dimensional Nazis, even as the narrative never offers a reason to justify this. Jerry Lewis famously hid his holocaust comedy The Day the Clown Cried in a vault, not to be released until decades after his death, after an earlier screening showed just how deeply misjudged the film was. It’s baffling as to why Waititi didn’t follow in those footsteps.
Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old Hitler Youth member, who lives with his mother (Scarlett Johansson) in war torn Nazi Germany towards the end of the second world war. Jojo idolises Adolf Hitler, to the extent the dictator is his imaginary best friend (played insufferably by Waititi as a sub-Sacha Baron Cohen character from the mid 2000s), and he’s even writing a book on how to spot Jewish people so they can be taken away. Then, one day, he hears a noise upstairs - and discovers that his mother has been hiding a teenage Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic. Jojo wants to tell the authorities, only to be told that his family will also be taken away if it’s discovered they knowingly harboured a Jewish person, so he begrudgingly becomes friends with her, and discovers that maybe they’re not so different after all.
It is this relationship that is at the heart of the film, and a big contributor as to why it’s so morally poisonous. Young Jojo is thoroughly unlikeable; screaming “yuck” when he sees Jewish bodies hanging in the street, or attempting to prove his credentials as a Nazi to the elders of the Hitler youth. And yet, at one point, the Jewish girl who has experienced his antagonism firsthand declares in a monologue that he isn’t a Nazi, and just a kid who likes to dress up and be part of a gang (coincidentally, fashioning the Hitler youth uniforms as a Moonrise Kingdom homage is a deeply unpleasant aesthetic choice).
Waititi adapted the screenplay from Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies, which is notedly not a comedy. You could understand how such a speech would make sense within a dramatic narrative, where the characters were fleshed out beyond heightening their most unpleasant attributes for laughs, but the director cheapens any realistic emotional insights by prioritising a portrayal of racist attitudes at their most ridiculous. He wants you to know that prejudice is uniformly silly in its sheer misguidedness - but he does so at the expense of a meaningful, believable character study that would grapple with these themes more effectively. Without resorting to spoilers, this relationship between the characters somehow grows more misjudged in the final 15 minutes, in which Waititi one-ups himself at least three times in terms of the deeply misguided ideas he throws at the screen.
And this is before we delve into the rest of the ensemble, most notably Sam Rockwell as the leader of the Hitler Youth chapter. There was controversy with regards to his character arc in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, and debate as to whether or not it redeemed his racist police officer - something I would argue it doesn’t, as the film is built with a self awareness around that discomfort. But with Jojo Rabbit, his Nazi is redeemed via his friendship with Jojo, even though his own worldview never changes. The film half heartedly tries to make him likeable through suggestions that he’s a closeted homosexual, even though this doesn’t cancel out his senior position in spreading a toxic ideology to the country’s young people.
A smarter director might have revelled in this problematic nature, and made something interesting and complicated from that dynamic. But Waititi is out of his depth, and his innate humanity turns out to be his biggest weakness when attempting to make a biting satire. He knows Hitler and members of the Gestapo can never be redeemed - but everybody else is a brainwashed fool, depicted without any traces of complication.
Jojo Rabbit is released in UK cinemas on January 1st, 2020