Depictions of Hitler as the butt of satire tend to upset some people, regardless of intent. We can assume that Waititi, the son of a Maori painter and a Russian Jewish mother, knew exactly what he was doing when he decided to write the script, adapting a book by Christine Leunens. Waititi himself plays a comedic version of the Fuhrer, who appears as a small boy’s imaginary friend. The director wants Jojo Rabbit to be noticed – and it deserves to be.
It’s an audacious, challenging form of comedy, the upsetting kind. It looks from the publicity like a children’s film, but it is anything but.
The premise may be cute – a 10-year-old German boy, Jojo, struggles to be a good Hitler Youth in World War II – but there is real violence and trauma around the corner. As the kid wises up about the war, the Nazis and the reality of the lies on which he has been raised, people are dying in the streets of his otherwise picturesque small town. In that sense, it’s a film about the betrayal of a child’s innocence. It’s important to say nothing about the film excuses the behaviour of the adults who surround Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and fill his head with poisonous rot. Most of them are portrayed as buffoons, but they’re nearly all a long way from harmless.
Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) allows him to participate in the Hitler Youth movement because to do anything else would endanger the family. Jojo’s father is away in Italy. Older boys taunt him, claiming the father is a coward, but Jojo’s imaginary friend Hitler (Waititi) bucks him up. Sam Rockwell, as a disgraced alcoholic officer, tries to shepherd the boy through the difficult rituals of becoming a good young Nazi. Jojo draws fanciful pictures of Jews in his exercise book, then he discovers his mother is hiding one in the attic. Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) is about 16, a sad, pale teenager whose presence fills Jojo with fear and confusion. How could his mother be so kind to a Jew? What if they get caught?
It’s hard to justify the argument made by some critics that the film trivialises the Holocaust. It’s not directly about the Holocaust, although the presence of Elsa in hiding and patrols rounding up Jews make it clear what is going on. The problem for some critics is perhaps the disjunction in form: the film causes us to laugh at a subject that usually comes packaged as tragedy. Waititi depicts Hitler as a manic, out-of-control, childish version of the Fuhrer, but what else would a confused 10-year-old conjure from his own trauma?
It’s quite hard to mistake Waititi’s seriousness of purpose. The film gets darker as it goes, becoming more confronting and nerve-wracking. Indeed, Waititi’s control of the changing mood is one of the picture’s great assets.
It’s no crime to believe that comedy can be every bit as serious and engaging as drama; indeed, the recognition of that potential is well overdue. Comedy used to be much more nuanced and supple than it has become. Brattish comedians like Will Ferrell, Melissa McCarthy and Seth Rogen, talented though they are, rarely delve deep into problems of the human condition, but that’s what the greatest comedies have always done. Jojo Rabbit is bold in its inversion of expectations and its reimagining of a familiar subject. There’s nothing trivial about it.
Take this as fair warning though: don’t bring the kids.