The posters for Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit describe it as “an anti-hate satire,” which seems like a pre-emptive reassurance to anyone caught off-guard by its jarring opening scene: a nervous ten-year-old boy anxiously preparing for his first day at a Hitler Youth camp.
Set in Nazi Germany towards the end of World War II, Jojo Rabbit uses light humour and pop culture references to show how tyranny seems normal when you live in it too long. A Wehrmacht training retreat attended by the protagonist, for example, looks like summer camp with hand grenades. Another early scene invokes Beatlemania, setting footage of raucous Hitler rallies to a German version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
Johannes is a sweet kid – he gets his nickname “Jojo the Rabbit” when he refuses to prove his mettle by killing a bunny – but he’s also a brainwashed Nazi who fantasizes about killing Jews and adopts Adolf Hitler as his imaginary friend.
This figment of Hitler (cartoonishly played by the director himself) is at first a comforting presence to Jojo, consoling him and echoing his insecurities, but eventually morphs into a more sinister figure. It’s a duality that also exists in Jojo, who occasionally shows signs of the viciousness he’s been conditioned to believe is strength. Even his mother (a tense but playful Scarlett Johansson) is somewhat afraid of what he could be capable of – which is why she doesn’t tell him about the Jewish girl she’s hiding in their spare room.
Elsa (played with a mix of patience and righteous rage by Thomasin McKenzie) is an old friend of Jojo’s sister. When Jojo eventually stumbles upon her in a closet, the only reason he doesn’t turn her in is to protect his mother, who he believes has been “hypnotized” by the girl. (She also threatens to “cut off [his] Nazi head”).
Throughout the film, his reaction evolves from hostility to fascination, and culminating in an innocent crush. The older girl is entertained by his childish love letters (ostensibly “from” her absent fiancé), and humours him when he bugs her for information about the Jews, who he believes live in caves and have telepathic powers.
“Can you read German minds?” he asks.
“No,” she says sadly, “Your heads are too thick for us to get through.”
Waititi’s depiction of the war, when it arrives at Jojo’s doorstep, is equal parts horrific and farcical, rightfully stripping the Nazis are any pretence of glamour. Jojo’s sweet best friend ends up on the frontlines as a child soldier. Lanky British comedian Stephen Merchant appears as an unnervingly awkward Gestapo agent. And oft-demoted army officer Captain Klenzendorf puts more effort into designing his uniform than fortifying the city.
As Klenzendoft, Sam Rockwell is once again in the sort of oafish role he’s played so well in films like Vice and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. As always, there’s a complexity behind his ineptness, as his apathy gives way to a deeper sense of futility.
Jojo Rabbit is a devastating, surprisingly sweet movie about dictatorship and the normalization of anti-Semitism. It could have easily been played as drama – but Waititi’s ruthless mockery is a powerful tool, a defiant rebuke of fascism.
Title: Jojo Rabbit
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenwriter: Taika Waititi