Like a darkly funny joke at a funeral.
(Mild spoilers for early scenes in the film. The short version is: go see it, it’s fantastic).
There’s a scene in JoJo Rabbit in which a ten-year-old boy is forced to look at the hanging corpses of people executed as traitors. That might be the best way to sum up this blackly funny film.
Taika Waititi’s best known previous films as director are Thor: Ragnarok, which was a standout Marvel movie and Hunt for the Wilderpeople in 2016, a superb and painfully funny picture. So, when the hilarious trailer for JoJo Rabbit came out, with its tag line about ‘Going to war on hate’, my tickets were as good as booked.
JoJo is the film’s protagonist, a ten-year-old German boy in the Hitler Youth. You soon learn that the film is set close to the end of the war, so you may know the fate of many young German boys at that time. In the film, JoJo has an imaginary friend, like many kids. Except his imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler.
I didn’t really appreciate from the trailer just how heavily inculcated in Nazi propaganda JoJo is, but of course, by the time he’s born, Hitler had already been in power for two years, so he’s steeped in filthy racist lies and proudly considers himself a Nazi.
What happens from there on isn’t hard to guess and in any case the second trailer gives away much of the plot, but the way the story is told is wonderfully different. Film makers have long sought to convey that war is hell, that fascism is terrifying, evil and self-defeating. Equally, there is of course a long tradition of mocking Hitler, going back even before he gained power. British propaganda subsequently gave us the ‘one-ball’ song, among other things. It was originally written around the start of the war and many people can still recite it now. It’s referenced in the movie. Hollywood embraced this parodying early on with the Three Stooges and Charlie Chaplin. Mel Brooks obliquely joined the ridicule later with The Producers.
What JoJo seeks to do, is convey all of this through the perception of a young boy. The film is classified as a 12A in the UK, so that perception goes to the way the story is related as well as how it is received. Of course, this is hardly the first film to attempt to examine these themes through the eyes of a child. Christian Bale’s haunting performance in Empire of the Sun comes to mind, as does The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and Life is Beautiful. Of those, only the latter attempted humour to bear the weight of the horrific reality and for me, it didn’t work. JoJo is explicit from the outset; you see through the eyes and the sense of humour of our young hero. If that means the humour is childish, so be it. Not everyone will like this, some will find it puerile. I thought it was hysterical, I absolutely loved it.
From the moment Sam Rockwell’s Captain K appeared, I nearly gave myself an aneurysm from laughing too hard. I’m biased in his case; I’ve never seen a performance of his I didn’t like. He even manages to elevate garbage like Charlies Angels and Iron Man 2 by being so damned funny. The performances are all excellent. I wasn’t 100% convinced by Archie Yates as JoJo’s best friend Yorki, but his earnestness is the point really. They consider themselves Nazis, but they’re also ten-year-old children, as one of the film’s best lines says, revealing the heart of the film. Scarlet Johansson gives the most likeable performance I’ve seen from her. I had never warmed to her, but after her turn here and in Marriage Story, I’m going to seek out more of her work. There are some deeply moving scenes between her and JoJo. JoJo himself, played (in his first film) by Roman Griffin Davis carries much of the weight of the story on his young shoulders and his Golden Globe nomination was well deserved. Taika Waititi himself plays Hitler, albeit a ludicrously handsome and tanned version. He’s hilarious throughout, but appropriately menacing and repulsive in certain scenes. Apparently, he directed parts of the film in costume, which gives even Stanley Kubrick a run for his money in the intimidating/unhinged director stakes…
Cinematography is quietly beautiful. In particular, some of the scenes between JoJo and his mum linger long in the mind. The music is magnificent throughout. I was familiar with The Beatles German recordings, but it’s another song, also recorded in German and inspired by lovers kissing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, that has the most emotional impact.
The film never shies away from the reality of its setting. Some of the scenes are bleakly horrific. You could argue they don’t sit well with the humour (which includes one groanworthy pun I dare you not to laugh at, regardless). You could argue that, but I strongly disagree. The film humanises Nazis. Some people might be uncomfortable that notion, but it’s much more dangerous to reduce them to comic book villains, which many – arguably the majority of – films do, particularly Hollywood films. JoJo idolises Hitler when we meet him and is proud to be a Nazi, but you never see him as a caricature or a stereotype, he’s a living, breathing human being, doing what ten-year-old boys do, often hilariously. So, when it comes to the scene I mentioned at the start, with victims of hanging, it hits you all the harder for it. You’re forced to confront the appalling reality with him. But the lovely thing is that there’s always another laugh, just around the corner.
This film will make you laugh as hard as it makes you cry. That’s entertainment, right?
It laughs in the face of an unspeakable evil at a time when that evil feels closer to returning than at any time since. It takes well written, multi-dimensional characters and uses them to mock obsessively fanatical monomaniacs. It exposes the moronic, dangerous lies that led to the Holocaust and it does all this in a way that is both accessible to and appealing to kids. Sure, there’s a good argument that Schindler’s List should be mandatory viewing at schools, but Waititi has made a film that school children are more likely to want to watch.
It won’t be for everyone, but everyone will find something if they look. JoJo Rabbit is wonderful.