JOJO RABBIT describes itself, confusingly, as an anti-hate satire – implying that it stands against some sort of pro-hate satire. Nevertheless, if any filmmaker has the offbeat sensibility to successfully create a comedic film where a Hitler Youth has an imaginary friend in the form of Adolf Hitler, then Taika Waititi might pull it off. The New Zealander certainly gets away with it – and even manages to create some moving scenarios – but the seams between the aspects that work and those which do not are apparent.
Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a young bigot in the Hitler Youth, with an imaginary friend in the form of Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Jojo unquestioningly parrots Nazi propaganda about Jewish people and enthusiastically takes part in the mandatory training provided by the local unit, led by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). Jojo’s views visibly discomfit his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). and when he finds she is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home the situation tests Jojo’s beliefs. With there being a mutual benefit to keeping Jojo’s knowledge of Elsa from Rosie, the two youngsters interact and get to know each other as the looming progress of the Allies grows closer.
JOJO RABBIT is at its most effective when it plays to one of writer-director-star Waititi’s main strengths: the comedy of the mundane. Waititi’s previous features make use of this, with the most prominent being WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS. That 2014 feature takes the fantastical scenario of vampires and werewolves and brings it down to earth with the minutiae of modern life. JOJO RABBIT has its best successes when it applies this same approach, undermining the Nazi characters by having them appear buffoonish or idiotic. In some ways – although the subjects are more harrowing – it bears similarities to the work of Armando Iannucci, particularly THE DEATH OF STALIN, albeit JOJO RABBIT is less sharp than that work. A brief cameo as a Gestapo officer from Stephen Merchant is perhaps the best expression of this, and Jojo’s interrogation of Elsa for ‘facts’ about Jewish people lampoons caricatures without spending the dignity of Elsa. These moments tow a delicate tonal line and are mostly successful. Other elements – very much originating from Waititi – are less so.
In particular, it’s telling Waititi ended up playing Hitler as a result of difficulty finding anyone else to do so. This more fantastical element doesn’t work for any particular purpose beyond expository dialogue with Jojo. Although the young boy’s inner thoughts can now be vocalised, the fact his imaginary pal takes the form of Adolf Hitler – one of the most provocative and attention-grabbing elements of JOJO RABBIT – is entirely superfluous. The role does nothing to satirise any mannerisms of the real figure, nor any aspect of his personal history. Waititi’s Hitler is little more than Korg from THOR: RAGNAROK – popping up to provide humorous commentary – but with a German accent. The portrayal is the most quirky element and the least impactful, and therefore runs the risk of being the glibbest.
There is also an event late on in the film which represents something of a tonal shift the film can’t quite sew together with the comedically-driven elements, returning as it does to humour (albeit with a sense of peril absent before). It is not impossible to mine comedy and irony from tragic real-life scenarios. A notable example for British viewers would be the fourth series of Blackadder, not only setting the series during World War I but deriving comedy from the very hopeless scenario of soldiers on the front. However, it ended on a sombre note, not attempting to swing back and forth. The film doesn’t fail to achieve most of its goals – a ‘last stand’ segment, for example, blends some comic elements in but succeeds in being quite moving. At another stage, a house search creates tense and nervous laughter. Thomasin Mackenzie adds another excellent performance to her filmography to go with LEAVE NO TRACE, and Roman Griffin Davis pitches Jojo rather well. The abhorrent nonsense spouted early on comes across as the mindless regurgitation of a child, generating sympathy at the brainwashing and the hope he can be turned away from it.
Given how well the film executes many aspects and the quality of the acting performances, it is hard to imagine the tonal tapestry wouldn’t feel more skilfully sewn together if Waititi could have reined in the more unnecessarily ‘out there’ elements. Much of the film works beautifully but, given the subject matter and characters created to communicate the film’s themes of understanding and breaking down barriers of hate, a couple of crucial elements need a surer footing. JOJO RABBIT is not an unqualified success, but it manages to get more right than it does wrong.