There’s something irresistible about a movie that flirts with a great taboo – a comedy about the Nazis. Mel Brooks did it with The Producers (1967), in which a Broadway show designed to offend and crash became a smash hit. Roberto Benigni made an attempt with Life is Beautiful (1997), although the humour was swallowed by sentiment. I can barely bring myself to mention the repulsive satire of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), arguably the worst of his movies.
In Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi gives us the story of a ten-year-old boy living in a German town during the last months of the Second World War. Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) – or Jojo, as he’s nicknamed – is an enthusiastic junior Nazi who can hardly wait for the Hitler Youth weekend retreat. He even has the Führer as his very own imaginary friend.
The camp doesn’t turn out as Jojo had hoped due to his disinclination for fighting and for killing things. Yet his pal Adolf doesn’t abandon him, and helps keep the old Nazi spirit alive. Waititi plays the role of the imaginary Adolf in a goofy, slapstick style. It’s not the real Hitler we’re seeing but an ideal Hitler reconstructed by the imagination of a 10-year-old. This version is clownish and funny. He’s always on Jojo’s side, and full of encouraging advice. For Jojo, being a Nazi is a great adventure, like being a member of a really cool club.
This is not the way Jojo’s Mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) views the Third Reich. Beyond her smiling demeanour, she has little time for the war-mongerers, and constantly risks getting into political arguments with her gung-ho son. We never meet Jojo’s father who is away fighting somewhere, although there seems to be some doubt as to what side he is on.
For Jojo the truly cataclysmic test of his faith – firstly in his mother, then the Nazis – comes when he discovers a Jewish girl hiding in a secret compartment in the upstairs bedroom. He’s been taught that Jews have fangs and hang from the ceiling like bats, so it’s an incredible shock that Rosie has concealed one of these fiends within the family home.
Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), who is probably the last surviving member of her family, was a schoolfriend of Rosie’s daughter, Inge (mysteriously deceased). She tells Jojo that if he informs on her, both he and his mother will also be put to death. This plunges him into a moral dilemma. Throughout the rest of the movie Jojo will wrestle with the problem of reconciling his growing attachment to Else with his undiminished faith in the Führer. It’s troubling for imaginary Adolf, as well, but he hasn’t got a final solution to hand.
Waititi maintains the comic tone through many scenes that could easily have been played as grim, suspenseful drama. The humour continues to percolate, but as this is a film about the Nazis it’s impossible to keep tragedy out of the story indefinitely. It’s a measure of the director’s skill that the change of tone doesn’t come as a massive U-turn, making viewers feel they have been bouyed up for an hour or so, only to be sent crashing down. Quentin Tarantino does this in almost every movie as a deliberate tactic, but Waititi has a more humane attitude towards his characters and the viewer.
One of the most engaging aspects of Jojo Rabbit is the supporting cast – Sam Rockwell as Captain K, an alcoholic former storm trooper, sadly reduced to training the Hitler youth; Alfie Allen, as Finkel, Captain K’s offsider and apparent love interest; Archie Yates as Jojo’s unflappable fat friend, Yorki. With the exception of Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm (ie. Miss Cream), a barnstorming army matron, all these secondary figures only want the war to be over. The SS men, led by the towering Stephen Merchant, are more sinister, but even their menace is undercut by the relentless routine of Heil Hitlering that goes on at every encounter.
The town’s final stand, when the Americans and Russians arrive, shows the desperation of ordinary Germans let down by Hitler’s propaganda, as elderly women, children, businessmen and shepherds seek to hold off the invading armies. In another time these Germans might be ordinary people going about their lives, or – in cases like that of Captain K – harmless eccentrics.
Waititi’s film warns of the dangers of blindly conforming to the dictates of power, accepting that might is right. He undercuts the peculiar glamour that evil holds for those who fantasise about wielding authority over others or getting their revenge on a disappointing world. How else can we explain those mobs marching in the streets of Charlottesville waving swastikas? There must be plenty of Jojo Rabbits among today’s would-be Nazis, nurturing twisted ideas about history with no empathy for the millions who perished. They may not be ten-years-old but they think like ten-year-olds.
In a world that welcomes “alternative truths”, in which the facts of history fall increasingly on deaf ears, Waititi suggests that humour may ultimately be an effective weapon. His Nazis are evil but also foolish, dangerous but ridiculous. When Jojo meets Elsa, his ideas about Jews are exposed as mere fairy tales, but he clings doggedly to those conceptions. To discard them would be to lose his sense of community, to forfeit his membership of the ruling club. It takes a severe emotional jolt to finally separate him from his friend, Adolf. One wonders what it would take to separate 45% of Americans from the would-be dictator who has provided them with an economic bubble and a moral vacuum.
Directed by Taika Waititi
Written by Taika Waititi after a novel by Christine Leunens
Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, Archie Yates
Czech Republic/New Zealand/USA, rated M, 108 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 December, 2019