Screenplay: Taika Waititi – Novel: Christine Leunens
‘Jojo Rabbit’ is being sold on the novelty of Taika Watiti as Hitler, and maybe this leads people to take is as a satire on fascism. But it seems to me that although it has satirical elements, it is far more akin to the magic-realism and the child’s fantastical interpretation of reality that’s rampant in the bildungsroman genre: ‘Celia’, ‘Class Trip’, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘Afraid of the Dark’, ‘A Monster Calls’, etc, etc.
RobbieCollins is voracious in his criticism of ‘Jojo Rabbit’, feeling it and Waititi are not up to the task of acknowledging the full horror of the Holocaust, that it only acknowledges these horrors by trite sentimental symbolism such as CGI butterflies and carefully rendered frames of shoes. And I can appreciate where he’s coming from, but in this case I believe there is a misreading: as sentimental as these moments are, they are associated with Jojo’s loss and not the Jewish experience; the Holocaust is acknowledged in the girl’s brief monologue about her family. Of course, the Holocaust is in the background of everything although what’s surely what’s at stake is Jojo’s natural goodness. Collins’ feels the Nazi characters here are too cartoonish and therefore inadequate and objectionable as responsible representations of murderous fascism. Taika Waititi will not be troubling the satire Chris Morris for Waititi’s approach is far more irreverently scatological, but this is about a child’s small-town interpretation of the experience, far removed from the truth of what’s going on and absorbing the propaganda because it seems cool and fun.
And it seems to me that this is not a kids’ film and that an adult audience knows what’s at play here; that the surface is all a child’s perceptions and we recognise the reality beneath that, and that’s where the unease, humour and tragedy all work. The audience doesn’t need to be educated. For example, it’s in the way we can feel both deeply uneasy and amused that Jojo’s jubilant Seig Heiling through the town resembles a kid pretending to be an aeroplane.
It is surely obvious that Rebel Wilson’s character is psychotic and damaged right from her horrific-humorous declaration that she has birthed eighteen kids for the cause. Sam Rockwell’s character, Captain Klenzendorf, is a little more complex to parse, obviously a jaded soldier discarded to a small town to bring Nazi influence to its kids. Although he helps Jojo and doesn’t seemingly buy wholesale into the doctrine, he’s perhaps seemingly heroic to the kids but also wanting to absurdly dress himself as such to fight off the allies in a blaze of glory. Klenzendorf swings between doing good for our protagonist and yet, no matter how much he truly adheres to it, facilitates fascism. He’s conflicted. Stephen Merchant represents the Gestapo as a caricatured black-clad, thick-accented menace whose comment about people reporting hiding Jews which turn out to be mould behind the freezer isn’t funny, but more an indication of the character’s contempt and dehumanisation of Jews.
Roman Griffin Davis is fully engaging as Jojo, delightful, brattish and scary as he begins discovering empathy when he finds his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in the house. Both Scarlett Johansson and Thomasin McKenzie are effortlessly rich, defiant and vulnerable, easy gateways to pathos and emotional engagement even as Jojo is all over the place and everyone else are caricatures to the boy. Waititi is fun enough as a vaudeville Hitler, but despite being the face of the film, he takes second place to much else and recedes into hectoring bullying as the film gives way to darker experiences.
They’re speaking German as accented English, but however outdated this may be now, it speaks to the light comedy rather than funny accents. The aesthetic uses incongruous music and there is a scruffiness that allows all the criticisms in. There’s always been the kind of slightly shambolic edge to Waititi’s work, a tonal see-saw, that prioritises the emotional and entertaining over perfectionism; a flavour that seems to me to be uniquely Australian. ‘Jojo Rabbit’s emotive agenda takes more and more precedent so that it’s the dramatic resonance you are more likely to remember than the comedy. It ends with dance-moves – that surely are too modern – just as they are getting warmed up to new freedoms and possibilities. The final moments are perfectly pitched: although upbeat in effect, it doesn’t compromise the darkness and doesn’t promise an idealist future. And, although incongruous music choices are all the rage, using Bowie’s German-language ‘Heroes’ seems to me to be the correct pick, if you are going to use it.