Can you do a heartwarming, goofy comedy about the Second World War and the horrors of Nazism? Should you do a comedy about the horrors of Nazism? Those questions would require a longer answer, one that I can’t necessarily give, but let’s start with this: as far as I’m concerned, you can definitely do comedy about four terrorist jihadis that is heartbreaking, dark and hilarious. Though admittedly, Four Lions didn’t feature a wacky imaginary Osama Bin Laden.
Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is clearly a labour of love, and that love shows in many, often appealing ways. The film is funny and inventive. It features some enormously enjoyable performances, not least by its two young stars, Roman Griffin Davis (who plays the title character Johannes “Jojo” Betzler) and Thomasin McKenzie (the Jewish girl hidden in the attic by Jojo’s mother). There is also great appeal in seeing Hitler and Nazi ideology ridiculed, though at the same time Waititi’s film doesn’t lose sight of the very real horrors that the Nazis perpetrated.
Whether it succeeds at depicting these horrors in a film that mostly functions as a comedy – featuring Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself) as a petulant, childish but essentially funny imaginary friend and ersatz father for Jojo – is a different question. Jojo Rabbit has various scenes that work by contrast, cutting from Jojo’s whimsical, childlike and idealised view of wartime Germany and its culture that we recognise to be wrongheaded and laughable to some surprisingly realistic, muted but by no means trivialised depictions of what happens to those who oppose the Nazi reign of terror. That contrast is certainly effective in the moment, but there is an imbalance at the film’s core. Jojo’s view of his world is a patently unreal flight of fancy, yet this is where Waititi’s heart seems to be most at home. Reality, especially this bleak a reality, makes the goofiness of Jojo’s skewed perspective much more appealing, even while the boy spouts Nazi propaganda phrases the implication of which Jojo barely understands himself.
See: cute-as-a-button Jojo is a Nazi. Or, rather, he is a little boy who, wanting to belong, has latched on to the poison he’s been hearing for the last several years. He is fundamentally kindhearted, but he is also utterly misguided, dangerously so – yet Waititi’s film only seems to understand this very rarely. Jojo’s world is a quirky, faux-Wes Andersonian Oz, a world of magic and danger and excitement, a world where Jews are mythological monsters and Adolf Hitler can be your best friend. By making Jojo so likeable and his version of the world he inhabits so enjoyably goofy, Nazism is ridiculed but it is also defanged, and the startling, shocking – though never gratuitous – glimpses of the real world seem to be self-contained, when we would need to understand that Jojo himself carries that poison within him. The more Jojo repeats Nazi clichés, the more they sound like the kind of silly stuff most ten-year-olds spout.
Again, recall those jihadis from Four Lions. Chris Morris’ film humanises them, he even makes them likeable (Rubber dinghy rapids! Dancing in the Moonlight!), but he doesn’t let us forget that they have taken it upon themselves to become murderers in the name of vague disaffectation and an ideology they don’t seem to fully understand themselves. Four Lions‘ humour becomes bleaker and bleaker, it is not a separate thing from the horrors the film talks about. In Jojo Rabbit, Waititi attempts to cleanse, for want of a better word, the humour, as even goofy comedy Hitler is evicted from his place in Jojo’s mind. While there are actual, unrepentant Nazis in the film, mostly they are not far removed from the Nazis of, say, ‘Allo ‘Allo. They are misguided, cartoonish fools. The actual evils of the ideology are referred to and glimpsed a few times, but they are depersonalised: in the film, actual Nazism is something that happens, not something that is done. Jojo Rabbit doesn’t really acknowledge that those who repeated the phrases, who shouted the slogans, were a part of the system. The film seems to fear the implications of this – we might no longer love Jojo if we admitted that in the end the drivel he spouts is not truly separate from the atrocities that are committed.
Still, while I don’t think Waititi does manage to find a good balance between whimsy, sentiment and darkness, there is much to like about Jojo Rabbit. Waititi remains a unique voice in comedy. He also handles several of the darker, quieter moments well, and while I very much disliked a crowdpleasing scene towards the end (it’s a moment that’s easy to laugh at and cheer, but it highlights the extent to which the film doesn’t really manage to reconcile its two versions of Nazism, the cartoony and the horrific), I loved that he ends on a final scene of quieter, more character-driven humour and charm.
Jojo Rabbit has wonderful moments, and even when it gets things wrong, its heart is in the right place. It risks being wrongheaded in its blend of styles and tones, and at times it steps wrong. There is a lot to be criticised, but Waititi and his cast and crew have made a film that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because some may consider what it does too frivolous, considering its subject matter. But I don’t think it constitutes the kick to the balls of Nazism that it so clearly wants to be.