Jojo Rabbit is a satire; just how effective a satire it is, remains to be seen. Taika Waititi took on colonialism, jingoism, nationalism, and American fascism in Thor: Ragnarök but here he’s narrowing his focus and locking in on the radicalized. Except in doing so, he may have made a crucial miscalculation which, while not sinking the film entirely, does weaken its effectiveness.
Little Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) wants nothing more but to be the best little Hitler youth he can be, literally. He is aided by his imaginary best friend Adolph Hitler (Taika Waititi). The problem is Jojo’s heart just isn’t in it.
Still, he’s enough of a nazi to worry his doting mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Though we soon discover that while she loves Jojo, she is trying to get him to understand how wrong he has it. While walking through the town square they see three people swinging from a hangman’s noose. Jojo asks what it was they did to get hung. “Their best,” Rosie replies before turning him away and heading home.
Waititi tells the story from Jojo’s point of view which is both a daring decision and a damning one. Since we see the third reich through Jojo’s eyes the film lacks the disgust and unbridled rage we might be accustomed to from other satires that have taken aim at the silly mass-murdering idiot with the funny mustache.
But that’s not Waititi’s aim. He wants us to see how such a bright and loving little boy such as Jojo could believe such horrific things and not just support but actively help in the death and destruction of an entire people. Yet, Waititi’s script doesn’t show us how Jojo became radicalized. For us, Jojo has been a nazi the entire time we’ve known him. The result is a sort of push and pull takes place as we both feel for the boy but recoil whenever he throws up his hand and sieg heils.
Jojo Rabbit isn’t a straightforward story so much as a bemused glance through the days of Jojo’s life. His time at the youth camp, his conversations with the imaginary Hitler, and the slow discovery that maybe-just maybe-nazis are fucking stupid. Waititi walks a tightrope here because narratively he makes it clear that he has no patience or love loss for the marauding numbskulls perpetuating a genocide. But again, there’s sweet little Jojo.
One day while home alone, Jojo discovers something odd in the bedroom which used to belong to his sister. We find out later that both she and his father are dead or presumed dead. The discovery is a loose floorboard that leads to the additional discovery of a hidden room behind the wall where a young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) lives. Elsa was a friend of his sister’s and is hiding out with the help of his mother.
But Jojo doesn’t know this. He hasn’t quite figured out that his mother is part of the resistance. Elsa will prove to be Jojo’s salvation. Jojo will fall in love with her and she will grow to love him like a brother. For myself as much as I adored McKenzie’s Elsa I found the notion that the only way Jojo could see Jewish people as humans was to become smitten by one too shallow and crass.
Jojo Rabbit has a glaring problem: Who is this for? Actual nazis will watch this and come away with feeling okay about themselves. The nazis we do meet from the barely closeted flamboyant director of the Hitler youths Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) to the ineffectual head of the Gestapo Captain Deertz (Stephen Merchant) come off as silly fools. Waititi’s tone is so embracing and whimsical that his harsh judgments come off as slight.
It doesn’t help that much of the atrocities committed by the nazis go largely unremarked about and totally unseen. The closest we come to hearing about the Holocaust is towards the end where Yorki (Archie Yates), Jojo’s best friend, bemoans that Hitler had been keeping some things from them. Still, even as he says this he and Jojo are carrying ammunition to fight off the allies. “Everyone hates us now! The only friends we have are the Japanese and between me and you, they don’t look very Aryan.”
In other words, it’s possible for someone who is a nazi, or a nazi sympathizer which is just a nazi by another name, to watch Jojo Rabbit and walk away with at most feeling like someone has stuck their tongue out at them. The price of telling the story from Jojo’s perspective is that we lose, not just nuance, but a sense of real fury at the horrors of the atrocities.
But Waititi is almost impossibly endearing and despite this almost fatal flaw, I found myself laughing at the razor wit of Rosie and the goofy antics of Captain Klenzendorf. Jojo’s innocence only makes the hatred he espouses that much vile and heartbreaking.
Much will be written about young Davis and it will all be worth it. For such a young boy he seems to possess a happy talent for comedy and a keen confident eye for dramatics. It helps that Johansson is giving one of her genuinely weirdest performances next to him allowing the boy to seem almost normal next to his kooky mother. Of course, the normalization of Jojo only further underscores the horror of the nazis, they, like Jojo, are the normal ones. It is we the rebels who refuse to fall in line who are the eccentrics.
Johansson and Davis have a remarkable chemistry. Jojo Rabbit is at its best when it’s inside Jojo’s house dealing with his home life. Scenes like the one where Rosie and Jojo are at the dinner table and a fight breaks out between the two over his love of the reich. To appease the boy Rosie flings a coat belonging to Jojo’s father over her shoulder, goes to the fireplace, and smears ashes over her cheeks and chin in a makeshift beard. In one of the best scenes of the movie she plays both Rosie and the absent father as she tries to cheer up Jojo and chip away at his ridiculous beliefs.
Waititi and Mihai Malaimare Jr., the cameraman, frame Jojo Rabbit in static shots. Combined with the whimsical mood it breeds an atmosphere of a sort of cheery macabre; or at least it wants to. Though the film fails at ever reaching the macabre aspect it is effective when it needs to be. Waititi and Malaimare use the camera to play with our perceptions.
The results vary from cheeky to devastating. Moments such as when Jojo first discovers Elsa are shot like a scene from a horror movie. Elsa emerges from the wall with the camera focus on her hands clutching the door as Jojo flees in terror as Michael Giacchino’s score teases us along the way. Contrasts with Jojo’s discovery of a new set of bodies hanging in the town square and you can be forgiven if you let out a gasp. At least I did anyway.
Thomasin McKenzie starred in one of the best movies of 2018 Leave No Trace and with Waititi’s help she’s continuing a path that, if there’s any justice in the universe, will lead to stardom. Her Elsa is far and away the most fascinating part of Jojo Rabbit. She has a knack for finding the perfect pause between words which in turn amplifies her emotions that actors many years her senior are still struggling to master.
McKenzie and Johansson each give masterful performances and each one is opposite from the other. Johansson’s is a mannered yet quirky while McKenzie is stoic yet vulnerable. Even if Jojo Rabbit was an utter disaster their performances would be enough to lift the film into must-see territory.
Ultimately though Waititi’s failure to really grapple with the politics of the reich and the violence they waged is what hobbles what could have been a great film into a really good one. Waititi’s irrelevant petulant imitation of the tyrannical weenie known as Hitler helps as well. A poke in the eye of the gormlessly numbskull Waititi cleverly gives us moments such as when Jojo is eating wartime rations and he is eating boiled Unicorn.
Jojo Rabbit isn’t without charm, wit, or spirit. But its own sort of need to be liked and childlike innocence keeps its criticism from stinging too harshly. To Waititi’s credit, his was one of three movies I saw in a single day. Of those three it is the only one I have consistently revisited in my head. Failure or not Waititi’s own personality, style, and guts to mock those in power who wish to be taken seriously makes him one of the more quietly fascinating directors working today.