Jojo Rabbit (dir. Taika Waititi, 2019) – Ten-year-old Johannes, who serves in the Hitler Youth, discovers a Jewish girl hiding behind the walls of his home.
Fictionalising real life tragedies has its risks. The slightest bit of fantasy can seem misplaced or at worst, irreverent. Even dramatised versions of the truth, like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, have been called exploitative. What more for those who attempt humour against the backdrop of a towering death toll?
That in mind, Jojo Rabbit comes off as the work of a madman. It opens with a ten-year-old Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis), shouting on about his allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Taika Waititi responds with exaggerated impressions and funny faces, decked up in full Nazi wear as Hitler himself and imaginary friend to the young nationalist.
Is it ever okay to joke about the Nazis? It feels just a little inappropriate to smile. Somehow, the satire manages to find a way to balance dark humour and difficult sensitivities. Every bit of mockery is aimed at the people, behaviour, and ideology who deserve it the most. The result is absurd, charming, sad, and moving all at once.
Seen through the perspective of a youth nationalist, the world of Jojo Rabbit is daringly vibrant, never dreary or sad. There is no hunger or hiding. People are dressed in high fashion on the street and untainted uniforms in camp. When Jojo meets the Hitlerjugend staffers, commander Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) even seem kind of quirky.
It is an audaciously light take on one of the darkest chapters of history, allowing guarded feelings to fall away for a while. That is before the first gut punch lands – in Jojo’s near-fatal accident. The offbeat tonality never meant that this was all play. It was still a real war with consequences.
The second hit of reality strikes when Jojo discovers a Jewish girl Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his home; war has its victims, too. Here, the story shows how his irrational fear manifests and would have been dangerously violent, if not for his age and innocence. There is also a fundamental kindness in him, unable to kill on command in camp.
Yet the boy had truly believed he was on the right side of the war. He placed Hitler above his own life, believed in ridiculous notions about Jewish people, and argued with his loving mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) on what loyalty meant. The accident that kept him away from der Hitlerjugend gave him a second chance to learn the truth, so that he can unlearn the lies.
His journey bears gravitas despite the jokes between, never shying away from the horror of the atrocities in war time. It reflects upon the importance of listening to whom we may not always agree with and accepting our differences. Not every child was given the chance as Jojo did. But this anti-war narrative comes as a timely reminder for the generations from here on to have the courage in saying, “Never again.”
Taika Waititi pulls off a tragicomedy that is in equal parts provocative and evocative, its only offence towards the war criminals that deserved it the most.