Lampooning fascism and Nazi ideology in a film can be a tightrope walk for any Director – the balance of humour and horror, a maze of potential problems. However, with Jojo Rabbit, Director Taika Waititi navigates this challenge by skillfully layering his film’s humour with cutting social commentary. Here Waititi takes square aim at the indoctrination of youth within a classic coming of age template that dissects the dark power of fascism.
It would be easy and all too lazy to label Jojo Rabbit as a black comedy, as just like The Death of Stalin, this is a film that delves much deeper than pure satirical comedy. Here Waititi couples a masterful satire with deep themes of subverted innocence and parental protection. While at the same time exquisitely exploring the masks people wear for protection during times of oppression.
First still from the set of WW2 satire, JOJO RABIT. (From L-R): Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) has dinner with his imaginary friend Adolf (Writer/Director Taika Waititi), and his mother, Rosie (Scarlet Johansson). Photo by Kimberley French. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
During the dying days of Hitler’s Third Reich, young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davies) is fully committed to Nazi ideology. His passion, imagination and boundless energy, tied to the propaganda of fascism surrounding him. However, Jojo’s understanding of war and hate are also blinded by the innocent childhood logic and acceptance he carries. His ability to see through the mists of war, held back by his hero-worship of Hitler. In his excitement for all things Third Reich, Jojo attends the local Hitler Youth summer camp, where he is determined to show the other boys his Nazi passion and strength.
The camps chaotic and mindless activities are managed by the frustrated and medically retired Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his band of extremist associates, Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) and Finkel (Alfie Allen). Here all three toe the party line while hiding their insecurities under a blanket of ideology that Klenzendorf and Finkel struggle to support due to their secret relationship. Meanwhile, Rahm joyously burns books, talks of evil jews and spouts nonsense to the eager young crowd.
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All is going well for Jojo and his imaginary friend, a child-like version of Hitler (Taika Waititi), who steers Jojo through the trials and tribulations of the camp. However, it’s not long before Jojo is instructed to kill a rabbit by the older boys, and his weekend takes a turn for the worst. After all, how can he cause harm to the innocent creature in his hands? Jojo lets the rabbit go, only for another boy to snap its neck, earning himself the nickname ‘Jojo Rabbit’.
Desperate to make up for his failure, Jojo throws himself (quite literally) into grenade practice, but that doesn’t end well either! The resulting explosion, leaving Jojo scarred and bloody with a gammy leg. His dreams of fighting for the Reich, over in a heartbeat as he returns home.
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Meanwhile, back at home, Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson) silently and dutifully does her best to protect her son from the real horrors of war. Her secretive battle against the fascism that has engulfed their lives, hidden from sight as she posts messages around town. However, her most deadly secret resides in the loft of the family home. One that, if discovered, would have devastating consequences for them both. Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) lives in the attic, a teenage Jewish girl who knew Jojo’s late sister.
Based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, cutting humour and deep emotion flow through Taika Waititi’s screenplay. The resulting film, placing all its strength in the hands of Jojo, his mother and Elsa. At the same time, those who blindly or knowingly follow the Nazi cause are the subject of humour and scorn. This is a film that never shies away from the horror of the Third Reich, carefully layering its comedy with moments of devastating emotional power.
Of course, some may struggle with the very concept of comedy as a tool for reflecting war and the hate it breeds. But, I would urge these people to explore the power of Blackadder Goes Forth, the depth of Mash or the bite of Dr Strangelove. Because Jojo Rabbit easily matches them all in its ability to use humour as a tool for reflection. Here Its themes of human conditioning, blind allegiance and individual rebellion shine through in every scene within an expertly crafted comedy/drama.
Like its screenplay and direction, performances are exquisite, with newcomer Roman Griffin Davies the stand out star. His outstanding debut, brought to life when playing opposite Scarlett Johansson and Thomasin McKenzie. Both women, embodying strong female characters who provide a balance of love and protection in a sea of conflict and hate. Meanwhile, the contemporary score ripples with electricity by cleverly coupling modern songs that embody freedom and expression with a fantastical 1930s orchestral score.
The result is a film that takes you on a funny and heartbreaking journey into subverted childhood innocence during war. Here we witness Jojo’s eyes slowly opening to the reality of a world built on lies and manipulation, the darkness of hate, giving way to the light of freedom and hope.
Director: Taika Waititi