Sometimes it sucks living in certain parts of the world. Jojo Rabbit came out in October 2019 in the US. In the UK, we had to wait until the New Year before we could see it. Talk about unfair. By the time I finally saw the film, it felt as though I’d been waiting for years. Of course, when it was released a lot of people in America thought it was tasteless to release a comedy film about Hitler. It’s such a ridiculous notion. There is a strong history of satirising figures like Hitler. Look at the propaganda that came out of World War 2. Look at Charlie Chaplin’s The Dictator. Look at The Producers. We use comedy as a way to belittle and take power away from these people. The ability to see comedy in situations like this is important. For one thing, it helps us learn from them and see these moments in history for what they are. I’m not saying you should go too far or get too offensive. It’s important to be respectful. But, if you can’t find the funny in Taika Waititi wearing bright blue contacts and pretending to be Adolf Hitler, then I don’t know what you’re looking for in a comedy film.
Jojo Rabbit opens with a sequence of Nazi supporters screaming as Hitler disembarks from his plane to the sound of The Beatles’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand sung in German. It’s a sequence that immediately sets the tone for this film. Taken in that context, the scenes of Hitler making speeches to captivated crowds completely changes. It’s funny but super uncomfortable. Jojo Rabbit is described by its director as “anti-hate satire” and attempts to show a hopeful alternative to it. A lot has been said about Waititi’s version of Adolf Hitler in the film. The dictator is the boy’s invisible friend. An over-the-top and goofy version of the man we’re so used to bewitching crowds of people. This isn’t the great orator but a ridiculous and hilarious version thought up by a 10-year-old boy.
For those who were worried that his film amounted to nothing more than Taika Waititi playing Hitler and pulling a load of ridiculous facial expressions, I can confirm that there is more to this film than silliness. There is depth and nuance at play here if you are willing to see it. Yes, this film is laugh-out-loud funny. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I had so much fun in a cinema. But there is so much more to the film than that. It is a film that has a lot of important things to say. At times, it is shocking, emotional and full of hope. It tells the story of an indoctrinated young boy and the trapped young woman who helps save him.
Based on the book Caging Skies, the film follows Johannes, or Jojo, Betzler, a member of the Hitler Youth. Jojo is excited to start his training and has dreams of becoming a member of Hitler’s personal guard. An unfortunate accident put these dreams on ice and Jojo must find other ways to help with the war effort. The boy lives alone with his mother Rosie. Or at least that’s what he thinks. He discovers Elsa, a young Jewish girl, hiding behind the walls of his house. Elsa informs him that Rosie has been keeping her safe which leaves Jojo with a tough decision to make. Does he turn the Jew in and risk his mother’s life? Or does he keep it secret and risk being found out?
No matter what the title may tell us, this isn’t Jojo’s story. Or at least, it isn’t just Jojo’s story. This is the story of Elsa, a Jewish girl who was abandoned by her country and who has lost all of the people she loved. A young woman who is forced to hide behind the walls of a house to prevent the people who want her dead finding her. We see how hard it is for Elsa to keep going through it all but her story is an inspiring one. When she comes face-to-face with Jojo and the hate-speech that he instinctively spouts, Elsa has fun with him. She doesn’t try and defend herself or teach him. She plays the role that he has given her but she also spends time with him. She has patience and conviction in her beliefs. This isn’t just a story mocking the Nazis but about the strength of those who oppose them.
Is Jojo Rabbit the best film that Waititi has ever made? No, definitely not. For one thing, I’m not sure Rebel Wilson ever quite found her place here and Sam Rockwell, though I love him, never got the chance to really go for it. His campy, alcoholic Nazi officer feels like it needed more fleshing out to stop it feeling so gimmicky. Waititi’s other films also have more self-confidence about them and a stronger identity. Certainly, in the first part of the film, the wackiness seems at odds with the message it’s trying to portray. The second half is stronger. We see the wall being pulled from Jojo’s eyes and he starts to see the world around him for what it is. The tense scene that sees a group of Nazi officers inspecting Jojo’s home is full of tension and danger. You realise that, even though you’ve been having fun, there is a lot at stake here.
My heart knows that this film could be better but it also can’t pretend that this isn’t one of the funniest films that I’ve seen in years. It’s also an incredibly feel-good film. This is a film of redemption and hope. It is the story of two unlikely friends and the journey they take together. It manages to find a decent balance between black comedy and sincerity. The darkness never goes too far and always allows room for touching moments. Do I feel it could have gone a bit further? Yes. There were times when it felt like things were being held back a little and a part of me wishes it would have had the guts to push it a little bit more. But, when it comes down to it, this film is one of the most entertaining things I’ve ever seen.
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