Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson
I remember watching Hannah Gadsby’s breakout comedy special, Nanette, last year. It was edgy and funny to begin with, like a wry satire of comedy itself. Her eyes were darting across the Sydney Opera House audience. Are they laughing? Are they offended? Then it turned deadly serious. Her gaze locked onto ours. She looked us in the eye. Midway through, my mind gave up trying to “slot” this performance. It was everywhere and everything. The form was merely a ruse. Nanette was in fact a sucker punch – a profound piece of social commentary masked as stand-up entertainment.
Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is, in many ways, the cinematic equivalent of Nanette. An ingenious sucker punch – a profound piece of cultural commentary masked as a wicked World War II satire. It opens with 10-year-old Johanne “Jojo” Betzler (a terrific Roman Griffin Davis) in a Calvin-and-Hobbes-style relationship with his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi himself). The Fuhrer, a constant companion who eats unicorns for lunch, rouses the aspiring Nazi in little Jojo, training him in diction (“Heil Hitler!” not “Hey Hitaler!”) and Jew-damning (“Jews mate with dead fish”). Waititi teases with the tone: A black-and-white montage of Hitler hysteria – the Beatles sort – follows, with the German version of “I wanna hold your hand” scoring images of girls dramatically fainting at the rallies of the semi-moustached heartthrob. Audacious is an understatement.
Over the next 30 minutes, Jojo Rabbit sucks us in with a quirky Wes Anderson aesthetic. The brief reads as: Moonrise Kingdom scout camp relocated in 1940s Nazi Germany. Sam Rockwell inherits the Ed Norton role: a bored Gestapo instructor who is softer than his ridiculous duties (“Burn books, impregnate women”) lead us to believe. Jojo is a weak link in the group, all bark and no bite; his tender face is soon scarred by a slapstick grenade accident. Jojo’s mother, a spunky and caring German woman named Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), kicks his instructor in the nuts. There is also some sexual tension between the man and his blonde subordinate. So far, so Sacha Baron Cohen.
And then, slowly but steadily, soul is what happens to the film while we’re busy making other plans. The facade cracks. Mother and son pass by a town square that proudly parades the lifeless bodies of the week’s traitors. Jojo finds a 17-year-old girl named Elsa (an Elle-Fanning-ish Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in the walls of his house. A petrified Jojo believes she is a ghost, but Hobbes Hitler remarks that she is worse than a ghost – she is a jew. “That little Jesse Owens Jew,” Hitler spits, when it dawns upon them that she is a runaway. “That little Jesse Owners Jack The Ripper Jew,” he spits louder, when she nabs Jojo’s kitchen knives.
The gags still continue: At one point, Gestapo officers search the house in a simultaneously chilling and hilarious scene, where the Nazi salute is played for well-deserved laughs. At another point, an assistant presents the instructor with actual German shepherds instead of the dogs he had asked for. But the spoofy exterior gives way to a beating heart. There is frankness behind the tomfoolery. The more Jojo converses with Elsa through the literal and metaphorical walls of his room, the closer he gets to his strong-headed mother (“Dinner is neutral ground, the table is Switzerland”). Most of their scenes are deliberately manipulative – Johansson even doubles up as her bearded (but missing) husband to amuse her frighteningly brainwashed boy. The design is equally manipulative, in a good way: The scenes inside the house are lit in warmer tones and sunlight, indicating an unlikely coming-of-age teen story. The scenes outside are curiously bereft of colour. The camera focuses a lot on the shoes of the film’s characters – a visual cue that is played to devastating effect later in the film. When a key character dies in the town square, we see quick shots of eye-shaped windows dotting the roofs of houses – creating the illusion of inanimate onlookers, but also locking their gaze on us, like Nanette.
Some of the film’s most tender moments occur between children that might have sounded morbidly funny if not for their disarming naivety. Their discussions sound strangely familiar. Until we realize that these poker-faced kids are merely reflecting the adult universe around them. They don’t sound like adults, they speak like them. What happens here, specifically as a viewer, is that every few minutes we are hit with an epiphany: The events and people and situations, as far-fetched as they may appear, are closer to reality than they seem. The sight of two cute kids casually discussing girlfriends and dead relatives while walking through the chaos of a war-hit town is unbelievable for how believable it looks. When one of them says “Forget jews, the Russians are far more dangerous – I hear they fuck dogs” while being invaded by the allies, it sounds like a punchline that says more about the audience than the person who writes it. The idea of Jojo wanting to interview Elsa so that he can write a best-selling book about Jews (“Yohoo Juu”) is not all that gimmicky either. The funnier these moments seem, the realer they might truly be.
Back in 2015, a German satirical film called Look Who’s Back (2015) presented a scenario in which Hitler is reincarnated in modern-day Berlin. An out-of-luck filmmaker decides to exploit this strange character for his career. For the most part, the irony of Hitler continuously disillusioned by the state of contemporary Germany is fiendishly entertaining. Until surprisingly, the man becomes a viral Youtube star. And his extreme ideology becomes a controversial hit. Everyone wants a piece of him. Things escalate very quickly. History is on the verge of repeating itself. I was reminded of this movie when Waititi, as Hitler, suddenly sounds evil – and very oratory – during one of his frustrated sermons to Jojo. Almost like he breaks (comic) character, momentarily, to snap us out of our smug reverie. By being a conqueror disguised as a clown, Jojo Rabbit becomes a film of our times. Those who choose to be offended by its ‘trivialization’ of Nazi Germany are, in effect, admitting that they are uncomfortable to look in the mirror every morning. It’s outrageous and funny…until it isn’t. American and Indian voters will vouch for that.