By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
With its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit functions as the final installment of the filmmaker’s informal trilogy that focuses on the subjective experience of boyhood. In 2010’s Boy, the eponymous protagonist is an 11-year-old played by James Rolleston, while in 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, trouble-maker Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is 12, turning 13. In Jojo Rabbit, we experience the film from the perspective of 10-year-old Hitler fanboy Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis).
Set in Germany in the final stages of World War II, Johannes’s story takes place in a very different context to the New Zealand of Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Yet, these three films collectively reveal an enduring fascination on Waititi’s part with that liminal space between boyhood and adolescence and how it relates to perceptions of self-worth, power and identity. At the heart of each story is a delicate balance between these characters’ desire for agency and a desperate need for guidance; each boy thinks they are in control, and although each movie engages in different ways with the codes and conventions of the coming-of-age film, the journeys of their central characters are marked by a steep learning curve as they move towards a more mature degree of self-awareness.
Of course, much of these shared themes with Waititi’s beautiful earlier work will pale in comparison to what in 2019 is its undeniably controversial subject. With the continuing rise of the alt-right movement and the increasing swing towards frightening pro-nationalist rhetoric around the world, there’s a certain audacity – indeed, actual, bona fide bravery – in Waititi’s decision to tackle the history of these movements through his signature sweet-but-sharp comic stylings.
Based on Christine Leunens’ 2000 novel Caging Skies, the film follows Johannes’s (Jojo for short) journey from a wide-eyed Hitler fanatic with posters of the dictator on his wall to discovering on an increasingly personal level the horrors of the war, and the reality of what his beloved Adolf Hitler was responsible for. The film begins with Jojo’s excited but ultimately humiliating adventures at a Hitler Youth training camp run by dishonoured and frequently drunk Colonel K (Sam Rockwell) and his ruthless sidekick Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). Struggling to reconcile his ambitions to be a “good Nazi” with the unrelenting ridicule and harassment by his peers, Jojo’s small but effective support network takes the shape of his feisty mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) and his friend Yorki (Archie Bates). In his most private moments, however, Adolf Hitler himself proves to be the dominant influence in Jojo’s life, an imaginary friend spawned from the child’s idealized vision of the Führer rather than the reality of the man himself.
Played with gleeful delight by Waititi, there’s a pantomime goofiness to his performance of Hitler that, while undeniably eccentric, perfectly fits the image of the dictator a radicalized 10-year-old German boy might conjure up. But there’s bite to Waititi’s representation of Hitler; amongst his cute one-liners and cartoonishly inflated jodhpurs lies an consistent thematic drumbeat of how the rhetoric of hate can be normalized to such a degree that it seems totally logical to a little boy who (we are constantly reminded) is far too young to fully appreciate the broader political and humanitarian issues at stake. Discovering his mother – spoiler alert! – has been hiding a young Jewish woman Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home, as the Allies move in and tensions rise in his community, the personal and political collide for Jojo with a devastating intensity that forces him to grow up very, very quickly.
With promotional material for the film adding the tagline “An Anti-Hate Satire” to the film’s title, Jojo Rabbit might not hit the level of pointed vitriol that the word “satire” might readily conjure for some, considering the real-world context into which the film will be released. Yet, it seems willfully disingenuous at best to accuse Waititi of toothlessness. It’s the spoonful-of-sugar approach: this is a time where bothsiderism reigns supreme, and we do not need to look far to find examples where extreme right-wing rhetoric is validated by seemingly unending access to mainstream media platforms.
Yes, Jojo Rabbit is sweet, indeed at times even “soft” in its politics, but to opt for the vernacular, what Waititi has accomplished with this film is a masterclass in reading the room. It is precisely the charm and warmth of Waititi’s filmmaking (and, of course, his public persona) that will grant him the ability to potentially reach those who most urgently need to hear what he has to say. Based on the commercial and critical success of his blockbuster 2017 directorial effort Thor: Ragnarok, the Marvel association grants Waititi a potential audience that other filmmakers lacking that brand recognition may not be able to mine as effectively. Waititi’s critique of the normalization of hate and the destruction of innocence is hardly subtext, and that Jojo Rabbit renders this palatable in a multiplex-friendly popcorn movie at this particular moment is nothing less than masterful.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).