Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich may perhaps not strike many people as the ideal fodder for a comedy. After all, the Nazi Party is undoubtedly the pinnacle of depravity, monstrosity and, quite simply, evil in our collective mindset. Responsible for the most heinous crime in human history, championing bigoted, backwards and loathsome rhetoric, it is hard to find a group so universally reviled - but, worryingly, that is not quite the case.
75 years after the crumbling of Hitler’s lunatic empire, and there appears to be an alarming increase in Neo-Nazism, White Power, racism and anti-Semitism from both the alt-right and (in a far smaller capacity, but there nonetheless) even, rearing its ugly head tentatively, in the mainstream left.
Which is why I was delighted when New Zealand born director Taika Waititi (creator of the sidesplittingly funny ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ and 'What We Do In The Shadows’) helmed Jojo Rabbit, an anti-hate satire that gleefully and mercilessly spits in the face of the Third Reich to deliver a resounding blow to the pestilent legacy of National Socialism.
Based on Christine Leunen’s novel ‘Caging Skies’, Jojo Rabbit’s story is straightforward, with a touch of Waititi’s customary idiosyncratic comedic flair. Broadly, it follows Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler, a credulous, naive ten-year old member of the Hitler Youth who discovers his mother has been harbouring a Jewish refugee in the attic of their home. Following Jojo, is Adolf Hitler himself (played by Waititi) or rather, an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler created by the ten-year old’s blind adoration and exposure to propaganda. Wrestling with the hate he has been taught his entire life, the ten-year old’s world view is radically changed as he experiences first-hand one of the Jews he has been instructed to revile his entire life, whilst his inner senses of empathy, doubt and childishness begin to slowly overcome the poison injected into him by the Nazi Party.
From a comedic perspective, Waititi goes straight for the jugular, aided in no small part by an outstanding ensemble cast. Within its first half-hour, the film strikes left, right and centre at the Nazis, using the hyperbole of satire to expose the hypocrisy, stupidity and nonsensical nature of Nazi rhetoric. Whether it be through Rebel Wilson’s moronic, brutish, Fraulein Rahm, who has one of the most cutting jabs in the movie (“we Aryans are a thousand times more civilised than any race” she crows proudly, “now, who want’s to burn some books?”) or Sam Rockwell, excellent as always as Captain Klenzendorf, a jaded, cynical soldier who has quickly become estranged from Hitler’s ‘glorious cause’ and Stephen Merchant, uncharacteristically chilling with reptilian ooze as a gaunt Gestapo officer, the cast blend together perfectly. Scarlett Johansson plays Jojo’s secretly anti-Nazi mother, whose moments with her son make up much of the heart of this movie, whilst the young actor Archie Yates as Jojo’s best friend Yorki, is easily the funniest part of the entire film, and his talent alone is sufficient to carry Jojo Rabbit.
Particular praise must go to Waititi, who in his turn as imaginary Hitler is responsible for some of the film’s biggest laughs, whilst also belittling and ridiculing the diminutive dictator as a megalomaniacal, pompous, priggish and utterly deluded clown (which, lets be honest, is never a bad thing to show).
Roman Griffin Davis must be singled out as the film’s lead character, who whilst also landing comedic beats perfectly, is magnificent in his range in exhibiting the emotion at the core of this movie. At the end of the day, Jojo is nothing but a lonely, scared child manipulated by vile adults, and watching his gradual evolution from blindly singing the Reich’s praises to emerging from the fog of propaganda is one of the film’s greatest triumphs. That, and the heartbreak of its message and its implication when focusing on the ten year old and his friend. These are no cold-hearted, psychopathic, sadistic SS officers or Einsatzgruppen members: they are children, their innocence and joy ripped mercilessly from them as they are thrust into the forefront of brutality and hatred, corrupted and tarnished. Alongside Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa Korr, the Jewish refugee, who is also stellar in conveying the bitterness, loneliness, rage and injustice of an innocent rejected and betrayed by her fellow human beings, Jojo Rabbit soars in its bittersweet moments, as well as the increasing nature of Jojo’s struggle, as throughout the movie the clownish ‘Hitler’ begins to evolve into his true self, (credit again to Waititi) a selfish, brutish, abusive thug.
Though not exactly a masterwork in subtlety (then again nuance is not exactly vital when deriding the literal worst people to walk this earth) Jojo Rabbit more than makes up for it with its strain of witty, sly and often acerbic dark comedy, which thankfully strays away from mocking the atrocities of the Nazis and focuses on their ideology and character. The serious scenes of this movie in fact come out of nowhere, and are dealt with with such seriousness, solemnity and respect that it feels like a sudden punch to the gut. They succeed admirably in transmitting, mixed in between the jokes, the film’s greatest strength.
A cautionary tale of the power of hatred and its manipulative horror, of the death of innocence and the terror of losing our humanity, of the self-destructive nature of evil, the pain it causes and, for me, most importantly, the power of empathy, love, kindness and hope. Call Jojo Rabbit’s faith in the strength of love naïve or sentimental, for me it is a philosophy that is more important now than ever before. Of how in the face of the small-minded, pathetic, vicious buffoons and monsters that encapsulates men like the Nazis, our greatest strength is our respect, our morality and our integrity.
And as the film’s ending sequence, another scene of many that elicit the question ‘who’s cutting onions in here?” unfolds, to a German cover of David Bowie’s Heroes ,the beauty of Waititi’s anti-hate satire becomes beautifully clear, no matter how simple its message. How we can all be heroes. Just for one day.
Pablo L, Year 13