LFF 2019: Jojo Rabbit Review
There is a right way to use Nazis for comedy and a wrong way. Over the years they have become the low-hanging fruit of the parody, and easy laugh that doesn’t require effort. The problem with that is if you only make Nazis the butt of easy jokes it diminishes them and makes it easier to diminish the horrific things they did. Taika Waititi knows this, and so Jojo Rabbit is film that, whilst being a comedy, never forgets that it is dealing with war, death, and the attempted genocide of a people.
Only someone who understands the severity of this time and place could bring out the humour in it this well, and also know when we the audience need to be laughing at the visual of Hitler in a swimming costume and when we need to shut up and pay attention. Sometimes it pushes both of those elements quite far, and it’s something that means that there will undoubtedly be people who can’t get on board with what Waititi is doing, but the film clearly believes that it’s anti-hate message is worth it, and it’s a sentiment I agree with.
Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a young boy living in 1945 Germany with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). He is determined to be the best possible Nazi he can be, spurred on by the advice of his best, imaginary, friend Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). He attends a Hitler Youth camp run by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) but some over-exuberance with a grenade leaves Jojo with injuries and his dreams of fighting for Germany dashed. As he recovers, he finds something unexpected in his attic; a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) that his mother has been harbouring. Seeing a new way to serve the war effort, Jojo attempts to learn all he can about the Jewish people before turning Elsa in, but it leads to him realising that maybe the war and the sides of it aren’t as simple as he’s always believed.
The opening credits of Jojo Rabbit paint Nazism against the backdrop of another, not to mention much more benign, mania with a German language cover of The Beatles’ I Want To Hold Your Hand played over stock footage of Nazi rallies. It’s jarring and funny, but it also gets the point across of just how encompassing in a people this kind of fervour can be. I also noticed that any sightings in this footage of the real Hitler are cut out or slightly obscured, never getting a full look at him. It shows that there is a particular line to the film’s humour that will not be crossed; that having fun with an imaginary facsimile of Hitler is one thing, but the real monster is excluded.
Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo could not have been better. He is essentially a typical everyday boy getting to grips with the world and his place in it; he just happens to live in Nazi Germany. His personal radicalism is born from three things; a desire to belong, to no longer be seen as a loser, and to have a father figure to latch onto in the form of his imaginary version of Adolf Hitler. Waititi in this role can only be described as bizarre and, like the film itself, is something that wouldn’t have felt right were anyone else doing it.
Just about every exchange between the two is hilarious, Waititi’s range of funny facial expressions need seeing to be believed, but also thoughtful when you look at them through the lens that this is essentially Jojo talking to different parts of himself. As things progress and certain events occur, these interactions change as Jojo begins to realise that Hitler, both the real and imaginary, may not be who he thought. It’s very interesting to see play out, and as the film’s core everything else wouldn’t work as well without it.
Scarlett Johansson is sweet and whimsical as the boy's mother Rosie, possibly too much so, but she effectively serves as the heart of the film’s emotional themes. A free spirit who believes in joy and dancing rather than war, as dangerous an attitude as that is in that place and time. Sam Rockwell continues his slightly odd trend of playing racists who actually might not be so bad, but you cannot deny that Rockwell talent. I would say that the real standout of the film, besides Roman Griffin Davis, is fellow newcomer Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, the Jewish girl that Jojo discovers in his house. She plays what is probably the most difficult role in the film, shouldering the horrific reality of the Holocaust in a comedy, but she does it so well. She is, however, still a teenage girl in the same way that Jojo is still a normal young boy, she’s often sarcastic and teasing Jojo not unlike a big sister would while also wondering if she will get to experience the world as a woman.
This also ties into a minor plot element that Jojo had an older sister who died. Details of this are kept vague, but it informs us in a more subtle way of Jojo’s family dynamic and why Rosie took in Elsa to begin with. Elsa also believes with conviction that she will escape to France with her boyfriend Nathan, who may or may not even be alive. Everybody clings to their fantasies in difficult times, not just Jojo with his idealised version of Hitler, or the Nazi belief in winning the war when it’s obvious to everyone that they’re losing. Stephen Merchant makes for a one-scene wonder as a Gestapo agent that manages to be both hilarious and slightly terrifying. That scene in particular is probably one of the tensest but also funny things you will see this year, yet again speaking to the movie and Waititi’s ability to juggle the tone exactly right.
It’s near impossible for every joke to land in a comedy, and that applies here too. Sam Rockwell has a joke about designing his own uniform that just came across as a little odd to me, and Rebel Wilson’s Fräulein Rahm is the closest Waititi’s film comes to those one-note easy comedy Nazi characters to the point that she wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo! One of the other low points of the movie for me (they are few) is that it under-utilises Archie Yates as Jojo’s best friend Yorki. There’s just something about his delivery and chubby-loser-demeanour that I found highly endearing.
Jojo Rabbit effectively dances between laugh 'til your face hurts hilarity and punch to the gut serious tragedy, and will switch when you least expect it to. It also does what the very best war films do and drives home the horror of what happened, what could happen again, and yet leaves room for a hope that human goodness can ultimately prevail.
Jojo Rabbit plays the BFI London Film Festival and is released in UK cinemas in January 2020