Published Oct 17, 2019A young boy growing up in Nazi Germany finds himself caught between the ethnic nationalism he's been indoctrinated by and a resistance plot that involves his family. Hilarious… right?
And yet, Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit is undoubtedly a comedy, right down to the auteur's supporting role as a buffoonish, imaginary version of Hitler. While the tonal shifts between slapstick political comedy and war drama are occasionally jarring, they don't interfere with the film's goal of exploring the absurdities of war, conflict and blind patriotism. It's like Dr. Strangelove for the whole family, Wes Anderson with moxie.
There are two strains of cognitive dissonance at play here: One is the way in which most of modern society had written off the Nazis as a toxic relic; the other is that neo-Nazism and white supremacy are experiencing a major resurgence in mainstream politics. It all adds a chilling undertone to the supposed absurdity of Jojo Rabbit's humour from its opening sequence, which features archival footage of what can only be described as "Hitlermania" set to a German cover of the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
From there, we're introduced to Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo Betzler, an earnest preteen who enrols in Hitler Youth. Davis as Betzler is all wide-eyes and unbridled enthusiasm, and his cartoonish portrayal adds to the effect Waititi is trying to convey. He's surrounded by a strong supporting cast, too, including: screen-stealing youngster Archie Yates as Yorki, Jojo's second-best friend (next to Hitler, obviously); Scarlett Johansson as Jojo's caring mother Rosie (a role she was born to play); Thomasin Mackenzie, who heightens the film's dramatic stakes as Elsa, a Jewish girl in hiding; and Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen and Rebel Wilson in bit roles as Hitler Youth instructors.
Waititi's Hitler — channelling his best Sacha Baron Cohen — provides the film's through-line, a shockingly grounded reminder of the ways in which people can get wrapped up in populist movements. By portraying a real, troubling phenomenon through the lens of both the largest modern episode of its kind and through the pure eyes of a child, Jojo Rabbit takes the fast lane to explore complex messages of blind faith in troubling times. It doesn't humanize sympathizers of tyrants, but in infantilising them, it posits a gentler approach to dealing with them than suggested by most modern discourse. When it goes for broke in its gripping, dramatic final act, the tonal shift feels supported by a lot of the work done throughout the film.
Jojo Rabbit is a refreshing take on today's worn political discourse, with plenty of depth and heart. Waititi has crafted a film that deftly balances delicate social commentary, a resonant political message and plenty of humour for a densely layered work that provides just as much to think about as it does to laugh at. (Searchlight)