The Grating Dictator: Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” Is Slick And Zany, But It’s Not As Smart As It Seems

“Heil Hitler, guys,” says the German officer. “Sheesh, that was intense,” sighs Hitler himself. “O-M-Gott!” exclaims a loyal fraulein.

Much of the humour of Jojo Rabbit comes from anachronism, or more broadly from incongruity: from The Beatles accompanying footage of the 1940s, from Nazis using modern slang or generally behaving in ways that Nazis, who took themselves very seriously, rarely did. It is notable that the one Jewish character (played by Thomasin McKenzie, hiding in the home of young German lad Jojo), and the one thoroughly sympathetic adult (Jojo’s mother) speak in a much more normal manner, confirming that they are not the targets of writer-director Taika Waititi’s satire.

And yet Waititi’s film also nudges us frequently into remembering just how preposterous, as well as sinister, many facets of Nazism really were — not least the outlandish race theories, which come in for plenty of mockery here. It is this juxtaposition of the ludicrous with the murderous, and the fact that we’re not always able to tell precisely where one stops and the other begins, that gives the movie a striking power despite its many dramatic and thematic weaknesses.

We never quite know whether to laugh or gasp, and indeed we never know quite what Jojo Rabbit is about. It is surely not about Nazi Germany in any meaningful sense, since any point it has to make (the crazed philosophy, the ruthless, all-encompassing regime, the duped compliance of many civilians, the brave opposition of a few) is extraordinarily well-known.

So is it a story of growing up, learning truths about the world and oneself, that has been set — for novelty or vividness or both — amid the last months of Hitler’s rule? Or is it, like Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, engaged in bringing the very idea of power down a peg? Or is it just bizarre for the sake of it? Perhaps even trying to make sense of the film is a mistake.

One thing it certainly isn’t about is Hitler, so let’s start there. While Nazism looms extremely large in Jojo Rabbit, Hitler himself — the real Hitler, that is — never appears, and indeed Waititi has happily acknowledged that he did very little research on the man. What we get, instead, is ten-year-old Jojo’s imaginary Hitler (played by Waititi himself, strangely resembling Jon Hamm’s Don Draper from Mad Men), gurning and capering, speaking as anachronistically as the rest of the cast, constantly offering the boy cigarettes, announcing that he plans to dine on unicorns.

He’s almost as far removed from the historical Führer as one can imagine. The character is a product of Jojo’s ten-year-old mind, and he is as unrealistic as some of the ideas Jojo holds about Jews: for example that they have horns, and consistently smell of Brussels sprouts.

Yet Waititi once again blurs the boundaries between his own fantasy and reality. Jojo Rabbit doesn’t seem for a moment to be suggesting that Hitler was actually like this, or that any adult at the time believed him to be, and yet it is implying — for example when a Gestapo officer approvingly examines Jojo’s hand-drawn bestiary of monstrous Jews — that some of the boy’s equally far-fetched views are not so far from the prevailing wisdom.

This juxtaposition of the absurd with the more-or-less realistic, and/or historically faithful, is pervasive. Jojo’s mother, for example (played by Scarlett Johansson, in compliance with new legislation requiring either her or Adam Driver to be cast in all movies), is quite credible despite the minor fancifulness of her red-white-and-blue outfit when she first appears by Jojo’s hospital bed, perhaps flagging her up as an Allied sympathiser but soon contradicted by a ridiculous Alpine hat.

She is indeed anti-Nazi, though probably from simple humanity rather than any specific political convictions, and there’s an implication the boy’s absent father is — or was — as well. But she tries to protect Jojo by keeping her efforts against the regime from him, a sympathetic white lie that leads to one of the few genuine dramatic shocks in a movie which begins comically but drifts into darker and sadder territory.

Similarly, Stephen Merchant’s local Gestapo commander, bony, smiley, scrupulously polite, rings true even when he’s engaging in farcically extended rounds of “Heil Hitler!”. On the other hand, nobody could really believe in Sam Rockwell’s army officer, kept out of combat since sustaining a wound and now reduced to training the Jungvolk — junior Hitler Youth — of Jojo’s town. His air is louche, the mutual attraction with his (male) assistant played by Alfie Allen becomes steadily more obvious, and in extremis his final contribution to the German war effort is designing a new uniform redolent of Sgt. Pepper.

And yet: at the very end he turns out to be a genuine, perhaps self-sacrificing, hero. Waititi again throws something heavier into the slapstick, with disconcerting results that come very close to making Jojo Rabbit fail but also make it unusually memorable. While some of what seems strange to our adult eyes may just be the way that Jojo sees the people around him (girls are scary, for example), the film flits constantly not only between fantasy and history, but also between lighter and darker tones, and between the realistic and the stylised. (Witness for example its treatment of the Allied liberation of Jojo’s town, toward the end, which is both grim in some of its details — a glimpse of young kids and pensioners fighting futilely is powerful even amid the gags — and ridiculously, comically compressed in time.) It’s a weird mixture but it often works.

Similar contrasts are on display among the characters. Some, like Rebel Wilson’s O-M-Gotting fanatical Nazi, are outright caricature: “Just go and shoot anybody who looks different to us,” she tells Jojo’s best pal Yorki (Archie Yates). At the other extreme McKenzie, the Jewish girl who Jojo discovers hiding in his house, is utterly plausible: old before her time but not immune to youthful dreams, scared but trying to be confident. Both Wilson and McKenzie are scene-stealers in their different ways, although McKenzie’s role is much more delicately shaded (and much more important to the movie).

As fine as McKenzie is Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo, a small boy solemnly trying to be old before his time and frequently failing; Rockwell’s Hitler Youth commander; and Merchant’s Gestapo officer. Also outstanding is another young lad, Yates as Yorki — reminiscent of Piggy from Lord of the Flies, he’s hardly the Aryan superman, but nevertheless his uncomplicated acceptance of Nazism helps to underline that Jojo is (for his time and place) quite normal.

Less satisfying is Waititi as Jojo’s fantasised Hitler; of course he’s not supposed to resemble the historical figure, but he’s not really convincing as a ten-year-old’s make-believe Hitler either; the boy would surely visualise a strong and manly leader, yet Waititi plays too blatantly for laughs. The result is the kind of cartoonish lampoon that an older youth (perhaps Scooby-Doo’s Shaggy?) might imagine, not the way a wannabe good little Nazi would envisage his hero.

Still, Hitler is not as important as you might imagine: the movie boils down to Jojo and the Jewish girl, and the significant character developments — Jojo’s inevitable warming to her and his consequent rejection of Hitler, both as the symbol of Nazism and as a symbol of his own immaturity — all happen between them, as do the best lines.

Jojo, compiling his compendium of wicked-Jew fantasies, asks her “to draw where Jews live”, and is annoyed with the result. “This is just a stupid picture of my head,” he complains. “Yeah. That’s where Jews live,” she replies.

Even better, because subtler, is the passage where McKenzie insists: “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten year-old kid, who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club. But you are not one of them.” And Jojo — confirming exactly what she’s just said with the most un-Nazi-like response possible — comes back with: “Okay. Let’s just agree to disagree.”

There is a darker side to this, though, which seems to have been missed by many writers. At the very end of the film Jojo himself lies to and imprisons the girl, implicitly for quite some time, having earlier manipulated her into compliance (or at least so he thinks) by feeding her false information. This is, of course, pretty much what Hitler did to the entire German nation; and it’s possible to read the movie in a whole different light because of this.

But in truth, I don’t think we’re supposed to. Perhaps Jojo Rabbit is trying in a small way to remind us of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, but ultimately the movie is probably just what it looks like: a deliberately kooky take on a straightforward story about a boy learning to empathise and think for himself, and replacing an imaginary friend with a real (if equally secret) one. It’s not really about Nazis or Germans or Jews at all.

In that respect, for all that the elevator pitch doubtless included the phrase “daringly original”, Jojo Rabbit (which is very loosely adapted from the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens) is completely conventional in its takeaway message. The daring is all on the surface, and even there, what is brave about the film is merely its departure from the standard templates, not its mockery of Hitler — that’s been done many times before by directors from Chaplin to Lubitsch to Tarantino. (And even if some will inevitably, and wrongly, argue that any humour related to the Third Reich risks trivialising the Holocaust, the film is careful to include plenty of more serious and even tragic moments to compensate for the fun; Waititi playing it safe?)

This superficial originality was enough to earn Jojo Rabbit a nomination for the Best Picture Oscar, which it clearly shouldn’t win. But still, even if it has nothing much to say and has been over-rated by some commentators (while rubbished by others; few were left unmoved) it’s refreshingly different. Don’t be fooled, though; there is probably no more here than meets the eye.

This article was originally published in The View From 8D, a Quora space.

Barnaby is a journalist based in Suffolk, UK. By day he covers science and public policy; by night, film and classical music. He has also been a cinema manager.

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