There have been a couple of satirical films about Nazi Germany that have centered on lampooning the identity of Adolf Hitler through films such as The Great Dictator, The Producers and Inglorious Basterds. But in Taika Waititi’s latest film Jojo Rabbit we see a hybridised hipster Nazi satire through the eyes of a ten year old German boy.
What do we expect from the gaze of a child’s innocence in a world torn by death, violence and racism? Waititi creates a film that can powerfully shift from humour to horror and light and shade, realism and delusion. It is a movie that brings up the issues surrounding the treatment of humanity for viewers to be reminded that we are here together on one blue little planet.
Taika Waititi’s inspiration for Jojo Rabbit is a subverted satirical adaptation of Christine Leunen’s more dark novel Caging Skies. The film opens up in hipster fashion as the visual style and colourisation are similar of a Wes Anderson film. This stylistic approach is reflected in the film’s opening credits where Waititi cheekily uses a German rendition of The Beatles’ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ over a montage of historical clips of Germans raising their hands in ‘Heil Hitler’ fashion. Here Waititi juxtaposes a pop cultural reference of The Beatles to note how the frenzy of Beatlemania is a similar testament to the frenzy of Hitler’s popularity in the height of Nazi Germany.
The Beatles’ song goes with the frenzy of popularity that Hitler and Nazism had. There is a touch of inspired humour of Peter Seller’s Dr Strangelove and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator on satirising egomaniacs. Waititi’s own racial background is Maori and Jewish and it ironically stabs right in the heart of Nazi core beliefs and the evil man Waititi portrays. It is these initial comedic methods Waititi uses on a particular subject matter that embeds a controversial and tumultuous period in modern history.
The main theme of the film is about the impact of war and manipulative power of fascism has on innocent young children.
The plot of the film centers in the final months of World War II Germany around main protagonist Johannes “Jojo” Betzler ( Roman Griffin Davis) who is a young ten year old German kid who joins the Hitler Youth. With Jojo’s father who is presumed to be fighting in the Italian front of the war, only his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is there to look after him. Unknown to anyone else Jojo communicates to his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler as sort of a way to communicate to a father figure. This version of Hitler (Taika Waititi) is a more fanciful, mean girl like muttonhead who shows a fatherly bromance to the young Jojo but expects loyalty.
Jojo just wants to be apart of the cool kids which sadly happen to be the Nazis. Throughout the movie, Waititi’s bafoonish Hitler gives Jojo aiding advice on how to be patriotic and a courageous Nazi through illusionary lies and this fuels Jojo’s perception of what the world is towards Germany. But the relationship between Hitler and Jojo can be seen as a visual satire on how the historical Hitler had the ability to influence Germany through propaganda.
One key scene that demonstrates this takes place after Jojo is labelled a coward by the bullies of the Hitler Youth camp for not killing an innocent rabbit. The imaginary Hitler springs forward to Jojo and uses Nazi ideals to describe the rabbit as intelligent, cunning and a German symbol and encourages Jojo to imagine to ‘be the rabbit.’ Jojo comes back to the camp, bravely picks up a hand grenade and but nearly blows himself up resulting in facial and body scars.
The relationship between the imagined Hitler and Jojo starts of comical and innocent but as the film unfolds viewers are still disturbingly reminded of the historical Hitler. We later witness the shifting attitudes of Waititi’s Hitler change from a camaraderie fellow to an egomaniac that is easily overtaken by fits of rage.
Waititi wants his adult viewers to draw into the gaze of a child’s innocence
Jojo’s world turns upside down when he discovers that his mum (who is secretly anti-Nazi) has been hiding a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) up in Jojo’s late sister’s bedroom.
There the movie starts to get to the point as a coming of age film. The dynamic chemistry is great between Mckenzie and Davis. The two actors are slightly different in age and this demonstrates contrasting perspectives of the child’s innocence that is emotionally conflicted with dark comedic moments mixed with tragedy. Jojo is at first adamant about his Nazi beliefs but is further rejected by the delusional and horrors of it all later in the story. Elsa is the key to Jojo’s awakening to maturity and to receive it at ten years of age is daunting but within the context of the story is one of necessity.
‘The boy knows only what he’s been taught — and what he’s been taught is that Jews are inhuman and have devil horns. Jojo Rabbit is set during the last months of World War II, and by the time the war starts to wind down, Jojo has begun, however tentatively, to see through the wrong of what he’s absorbed.’ said Owen Glibermein of Variety.
Jojo Rabbit cleverly filters the banality and evilness of Nazi Germany through the consciousness of a smart yet naive, sensitive and simple German kid.
Jojo’s antisemitic perception of the Jewish race is fed by Nazi propaganda and Jojo wants to write a book about Jews, captioning his writing with illustrations of them being people with devil horns. Elsa deceivingly’and sarcastically tells Jojo everything about Jews and that they are magical evil monsters only to which Jojo realises later on they are not.
In one of the film’s most intense and comical scenes is where the Gestapo (Stephen Merchant) visit Jojo’s house and fall for Elsa’s disguise as Jojo’s dead sister.The Gestapo take in with great delight of the humour detailing Jojo’s illustrations. By then Jojo has already changed from his antisemitic views.
Waititi as a director uses scenes like this in the movie to show how these embellishments were perpetuated by dictating regimes to lead Jojo and other ‘actual’ children in the Hitler Youth camp believe false teachings on human race. Behind the purpose of blending comedy with intensity Waititi says, ‘It’s following in the tradition of some very smart people who had something to say and used comedy — which in my opinion is one of the most powerful tools against bigotry and against regimes and dictators.’
Child actor Roman Griffin Davies plays Jojo in such a surreal humanising way you sympathise with the character throughout the film. Jojo comes to grip onto the fact that the Nazi club he wishes to apart is wrong and thus does not desire to be in a club full of haters. Jojo’s social interactions with Elsa throughout the film develops from an antagonistic one to a growing nurturing sister/brother relationship who both seek a path to survival.
Human sentiment seen through the minor characters who are good and evil
One character who is there for comedic purposes but does pose a minor prominence in the film’s storytelling is Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). Captain Klenzendorf is a Nazi war veteran who is tasked in running the Hitler Youth Camp Jojo is based in.
Clarrisse Loughrey of The Independent, writes, ‘deployed here as a form of humanisation – not to make the characters more sympathetic to audiences, but to illustrate how easily fascism feeds off banal human flaws.’ Viewers get to see this in Klenzendorf’s characterisation.
While it is hinted that Klenzendorf is having a homosexual affair with his second in command Finkel (Game Of Thrones’ Alfie Allen), Klenzendorf seemingly does not appear to agree with all the dogma characteristics of the Nazi regime but has become disillusioned by it. Klenzendorf’s characterisation is a conflicted one and Waititi paints some of those male adult characters such as Klenzedorf to act like lunactics who are in love with the glories of war but goes out of his way to enact a sense of heart towards other humans. Klenzedorf is a character who has enacted violence in the name of the ‘Fuhrer’ but as the war takes a turn in its final moments Klenzedorf realises the human integrity within Jojo and Elsa and helps them during climatic moments in the film.
Jojo’s mother Rosie who we find out is anti Nazi serves the protagonist’s faithful and loving mother. Scarlett Johansson brings a breath of air into Rosie, Rosie is not the typical one-dimensional motherly character. Rosie serves as the sort the ultimate guiding force of good in the story. Being Jojo’s only parental figure, she tries to dissuade Jojo’s blind nationalism by telling him, – “Love is the strongest thing in the world.”
While some critics such as Richard Boyle of the New Yorker, note, ‘The movie doesn’t so much satirize Nazis, let alone expose the fraudulence of contemporary hatemongers (such as neo-Nazis or alt-rightists) or mainstream Republican Trump-cultists. Rather, the movie ultimately cautions against the easy contempt and dismissal of them by liberals and progressives: there are a lot of very fine people on both sides.’ Waititi’s mode of direction on the film overall however feels as if it doesn’t intend to go to very extreme lengths on the socio-political spectrum. Waititi doesn’t force to make a point or push people’s views to a particular angle. Roslyn Talusan comments, ‘Jojo is the conduit for the film’s message that hatred is learned, and that our compassion must be nurtured, not repressed.’ Waititi hopes to mix his own style of humour and carefully balance it with contextual horror.
Waititi’s choice on returning and exploring the subjectivity of a coming of age film goes back to his previous films such as Boy and Hunt For The Wilderpeople. In Jojo Rabbit Waititi’s aim is to make audiences see through the lens of a child and to remind them that we as a human race are capable of change when we’re encouraged to love and not hate and so this film hits hard emotionally.
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