Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi
Jews smell like Brussel sprouts – this is a throwaway line from Jojo Rabbit. But it captures instantly and completely the absurdity and horror of bigotry. The film is set in Nazi Germany and yet it speaks, with alarming clarity, to the present-day politics of hatred mushrooming around the world. Director Taika Waititi, who adapted the screenplay from a novel called Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, works a miracle here – he uses humor to explore the heart of darkness and through children, he reveals an essential truth – that there is no us and them. That hate stems from ignorance and insecurity. And that to celebrate life, we must dance.
Jojo is a 10-year-old boy who lives in a small German town. His father is missing. His mother is loving but mysteriously busy. Jojo has one close friend named Yorki and a grand love for Swastikas. He also spends a lot of time chatting with an imaginary buddy – Adolf Hitler, played with a manic energy by Waititi himself. Adolf, as Jojo calls him, appears only to Jojo and pumps him up with chats about how to be a true zealot. Early in the film, he gives Jojo tips on how to improve his Heil. In a later scene, Adolf emphatically tells him: Do not let her boss your German brain around!
Director Taika Waititi expertly manages the swings and shifts in the film. It goes from funny to tragic to rousing in a heartbeat
Can the Holocaust be funny? Legendary filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch have mined the material in classics like The Great Dictator and To Be or Not To Be, which is one of my favorite films. To combine a tragedy of this proportion with humor, even if it is satirical, requires delicacy and precision control. It’s a precarious tightrope walk that Waititi performs with panache. His eccentric sense of humor powers the film.
Waititi sets up the singular tonality from the beginning – the Beatles singing ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ in German plays over footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous Hitler documentary Triumph of the Will, in which hundreds of German hands are held up in a Heil. Later in the film, a tense sequence with Gestapo officers becomes hilarious because everyone is Heil Hitler-ing each other and it just goes on and on. Waititi expertly manages these swings and shifts in the film. It goes from funny to tragic to rousing in a heartbeat.
The actors pitch their performances with skill, finding that tough balance between tears and laughter
Jojo the proud Nazi discovers a Jew in his home. When he first finds Elsa hiding in a cavity in his late sister’s bedroom, he asks if she’s a ghost and she replies: No, something worse, a Jew. As their relationship deepens, Jojo’s view of the world comes undone. He slowly discovers that in fact Jews don’t smell like Brussel sprouts and they don’t have horns either. There is such tenderness in this bond. As there is between Jojo and his mother Rosie played by the lovely Scarlett Johansson. In one scene, Jojo and Rosie are looking at people, accused of being traitors, who are hanging dead in the town square. Jojo asks her what they did to deserve this and she answers: What they could. Jojo of course doesn’t understand what those words or the piercing defiance and sadness in her voice actually means.
This thread of humanity stays intact through the film – even when the tone becomes too playful and the frame resembles a Wes Anderson-style dollhouse. Despite the heightened artificiality, the emotions shine through. The actors pitch their performances with skill, finding that tough balance between tears and laughter. Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo and Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa are acerbic, vulnerable and despite the horrors they know, achingly innocent. And Waititi as Hitler manages to be both cartoonish and creepy.
Jojo Rabbit is a polarizing film. Many people will find it naïve or too feel-good to actually feel any good. I loved it. You may not. But I recommend that you give it a shot. Because Waititi, who also directed Thor: Ragnarok, has such a unique sensibility – he is, what we Mumbai folks call, a single piece. Even if you aren’t seduced by his startling vision, you should at least experience it.