Jojo Rabbit movie review: Audaciously imagined conversations with the enemy
Shooting off the shoulders of kids, Taika Waititi weaves a sugar-coated but scathing commentary on divisive politics of hate that once propagated across the world. But not much has changed, has it?
How dare you humanise a Nazi? How dare you use Adolf Hitler as comic relief? How dare you give the perils of indoctrination a summery, cute vibe? How dare you this, how dare you that. Tiptoeing around these minefields, Taika Waititi manages to give us a film that might be too hip for its own good but offers an affecting tractate on what it takes to be a good-natured human in a world that thrives on labels and conflicts.
Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin Mackenzie, Taika Waititi
This journey is propelled by the young Jojo (a brilliant Roman Griffin Davis), who not only finds himself attracted to the ideas of the Nazi leader but has fashioned a caricaturish Hitler (Taika Waititi having a bit too much fun) as an imaginary friend. Based on Christine Leunens' Caging Skies novel, Waititi puts his own wacky spin to a visually exciting film, which is rightfully making some polarising noises. What else can one expect when a film that is centred around precocious kids drawn towards fascism is treated like Thor: Ragnarok on a sugar high?
Young Jojo believes Germany needs his help to weed out the 'horn-spouting, mind-reading, money-loving enemies of the State', also known as Jews. He believes Jews are evil and ugly, and is convinced Jews cut off tips of German penises to use as earplugs. But he doesn't understand why the Gestapo have hanged people he knows (members of the Resistance) to die? He is the poster kid for how fascist forces, fake news, and blind fanaticism can corrupt an entire generation. On the surface, Jojo Rabbit might seem a redemptive tale of how Jojo understands the power of love through two important female figures — his dance-loving mother Rosie (a peerless Scarlett Johansson as a member of the resistance), and Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie), a jew being hidden in his attic by his mother. But it is more about Rosie and Elsa's politics and how even in the darkest of times, there's the promise of hope thanks to such unwavering souls who sit together in dark, crummy, cold corners to fight for what's right. Rosie doesn't shy away from calling her own son a Nazi. Elsa tells him that he is a kid who likes funny uniforms and wants to be part of a club.
And in between all this, there is Waititi's Hitler who throws more tantrums than a ten-year-old. Being a figment of Jojo's imagination, Hitler is seen saying things like "What do I know about Jews? I'm no expert" and constantly offering him cigarettes. A case can be made as to why Hitler is well... infantilised. But again, in Jojo Rabbit, Hitler is seen through the eyes of a young brainwashed Nazi who sees the Fuhrer as a father figure. Mounting this film through a child's eyes gives rise to a troubling conundrum. Do we judge Jojo for his violent actions or let it all go since he is not yet an adult? Do we see Jojo through the eyes of the oppressed, or paint him as a victim of social conditioning?
Jojo's radicalisation is a scary reminder of how things were... and still are. Even his eventual realisation stems from being forced to sit on the sidelines after a freak incident involving grenades and a flying Hitler. Would he have changed if he'd gone to war just like his best friend and fellow Nazi, Yorki (a brilliant Archie Yates)? While the easy answer is no, Yorki does provide a sense of clarity that belies his age. Talking about seeing Jews for the first time, Yorki says, "I didn't see what the fuss was all about." Rosie does try to teach Jojo about how love for one's own country doesn't necessarily translate into hate for another. Elsa talks about her life that she hasn't even begun living thanks to someone who "couldn't even grow a full moustache." These conversations between Elsa and Jojo are at the heart of the film. As Jojo finds his way from clouded judgment to better sense, we recall the parallels to the you-know-whos and you-know-whats of our respective countries. But despite these heavy-handed dialogues, it is Yorki again, who provides a wry commentary on the stupidity of war. Meeting Jojo after weeks of battle, Yorki points out, "We are losing. The only friends we have are the Japanese, and they don't look like Aryans at all." If a child can see through fake nationalism and worthless supremacist beliefs, then why can't adults?
Shooting off the shoulders of kids, Waititi weaves a sugar-coated but scathing commentary on divisive politics of hate that once propagated across the world. But not much has changed, has it? The persecution of minorities hasn't stopped. The alienation of ethnic groups hasn't stopped. The radicalisation of the impressionable hasn't stopped. If you think I am reading too much into it, and cinema is all about entertainment, then sample this line, which is horrifying relevant to our times: "I hope more young boys have your blind fanaticism." But subtext aside, Waititi offers enough entertaining asides that one can just be blown away by the sheer audacity of it all. Where else can you see Hitler happily feasting on a unicorn head?