Well, you certainly must give Taika Waititi point for audacity if nothing else. The first thirty minutes or so of Jojo Rabbit had me clenched up wondering where it was going and what it was trying to do. It had a distinct possibility to go completely off the rails, if not into outright offense, and I remain unconvinced that reactions steeped in disgust and offense aren’t entirely valid. Jojo Rabbit is a film I eventually got into a wavelength with, but this is some volatile material at work.
Told from the perspective of a young boy in Nazi Germany who eagerly partakes of the propaganda as a desperate way to fit in until his world slowly begins to crumble. These fractures cause him to not only grow-up but to rethink and reframe his world and its inherent political viewpoints. Oh, and a fanciful version of Hitler is his imaginary friend.
It's not that there haven’t been successful and beloved comedies about Hitler and the Nazis before, look at Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, but those other films didn’t offer the cuddly aura that this one did. If it’s hard to hate up close, then into that theory comes a Jewish refugee living in Jojo’s attic. The majority of the movie is Jojo, so nicknamed by an older member of Hitler Youth after his refusal to kill a rabbit, learning that Jews are people, his ideology is wrong, and his mother is a part of the political insurgency that decries Germany’s actions.
Waititi isn’t merely satirizing Nazis but making them small by mocking them and their obsessive bureaucracy. Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, and Sam Rockwell all broadly play their roles as Nazi counselors at a Hitler Youth boot camp. They aren’t characters but cartoons lacking anything resembling humanity, including a complex scene where Wilson arms children in Germany’s final wartime push.
Much of Jojo is balanced upon Roman Griffin Davis’ tiny shoulders, and he’s a bit of a wunderkind. How Waititi got such a complex performance out of so young an actor is anyone’s guess, but I suppose some kids have just got it. His scenes with Scarlett Johansson as his mother are the richest. Johansson’s performance is emotionally complicated, and she telegraphs the diverting emotions in smart ways. Her eventual fate is a heartbreaking moment played with intensity by Davis.
It all closes with a dance set to a German version of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a simple reminder of the things that were lost along the way. I can understand someone walking away from Jojo Rabbit feeling offended by its combination of laughs and authoritarian imagery. It took me a while to get the vibe of the piece and it ended up winning me over, but I understand how and why it wouldn’t. It may be naïve to think that the youth will leads us out of darkness, but maybe Waitti is also onto something.