Most films have recognisable signifiers which help categorise their genre. If there are tanks, guns or soldiers, we know it’s a war film. If there’s a pie-in-the-face gag, chances are it’s a comedy. If we see a tearful monologue, we can bet it’s a serious drama. Despite most genres having very obvious dividing lines, filmmakers occasionally try to find creative ways of blurring them. They can vary from being shocking to offensive, but are always interesting to watch. New Zealand filmmaker, Taika Waititi, has successfully made a career of blending genres together, giving us What We Do In The Shadows (2014), Hunt For The Wilder People (2016) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017). With no signs of slowing down, Waititi dives head first into Jojo Rabbit (2019) a satirical black comedy about a member of the Hitler Youth.
Set during the last days of WWII, we follow the story of a passionate Hitler Youth member, Jojo Betzler (played by Roman Griffin Davis). Despite not being taken seriously by his peers, Jojo is encouraged by his is imagined best friend, Adolft Hitler (played by Director Taika Waititi) to be completely devoted to Nazism. Jojo’s mother Rosie (played by Scarlett Johansson) quietly disapproves of the war, doing everything she can to be a source of happiness and love for Jojo. However, just as it seems like Jojo is all set to prove himself as a Nazi, he finds Elsa (played by Thomasin McKenzie) a young Jewish girl Rosie is hiding in their house. Thus, Jojo is challenged with actually following through on his convictions.
Fascism, anti-semitism and indoctrination don’t usually come to mind as hilarious concepts. Thankfully, Waititi is a rare talent who can create humour with unconventional ingredients. Granted, this isn’t the first time Nazism has been the subject of comedy, but Waititi does it with graceful wit. He recognises the genuine absurdity of Nazism and dials it to 11. When looking closely at the Nazi ideals, they are both terrifying and ridiculous. Waititi focuses on the ridiculous, yet what we see isn’t too far from the truth. Everything is portrayed like an irreverent cartoon, causing us to gasp as well as laugh. Waititi highlights the absurdity by directing the performances to feel very modern, with characters “Heiling Hitler” as if they are saying “what’s up”. It’s not lost on Waititi just how bizarre things like a Nazi school for children actually was, successfully leaning into that fact for comedic purposes.
Seeing Nazism through the eyes of a child is another secret weapon to making this story work, as children are naturally inclined to seek out things which are fun. Jojo’s childlike interpretations of profiling jews, using weapons and supporting Hitler, results in hilarious and eye-opening historical analysis. Children being taught how to use knives and grenades is of course horrifying, but ends up being amusing when we realise that a child would see these activities as a fun game like any other. What’s most impressive is how Waititi compares the child’s view of fascism to the adults view. Hearing grown men and women thinking about the world no more intelligently than children gets belly-laughs from the audience. In effect, Waititi smartly points out that fascism, the Nazi Party and their ideas are immature and childish.
It’s not all fun and games, as Waititi does a fine job with the genuinely dramatic material. Nazi Germany is a truly dark time in world history, which thankfully is not trivialised. Jojo’s story is conveyed in a mostly comedic manner, but that doesn’t stop the shock, horror and heartbreaking events from affecting him or the audience. Waititi knows when to go for the laugh and he knows when to let sombre emotions take over. It kind of creeps up on you, with comedy taking a backseat to sadness or tension as the story unfolds. You’d think this would result in a confused tone, but Waititi’s grasp of story and theme ensure we can still have a good time while unpacking the emotional layers.
The cast is filled with talented actors who all have moments to shine. Scarlett Johansson is infectiously optimistic as Rosie, immediately becoming one of the most loveable mum’s in all of cinema. Taika Waititi portrays Adolf with all of the Director’s trademark quirks, enhancing the thematic buffoonery and childishness. Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant all do strong work showing different shades of what a fascist regime creates. The stars of the show turn out to be Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa and Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo. McKenzie portrays Elsa with fearlessness and angelic charm, successfully carrying the weight of the emotional drama. Roman Griffin Davis has the tough job of making us like a fanatic before he’s had time to change, which is a challenge he overcomes easily.
Despite having complete command of the thematic intentions, it’s possible that some audiences may find the joyful and heartfelt tone hard to swallow. Even though Waititi makes it clear that it’s an anti-hate piece, some viewers probably won’t accept Nazi’s as anything other than evil monsters. Even though all character arcs are complex and layered, it may be hard or uncomfortable being made to sympathise. It’s not a deal-breaker, as there’s still plenty in the text to justify the bold story choices.
For such a dramatic concept, it’s a risk to take such a darkly comedic spin on the material. That risk mostly pays off, as Director Taika Waititi is a master at genre-blending. He stays true to the thematic intentions while the laugh-out-loud moments pile up. Even if Jojo’s story wasn’t well told or genuinely sweet, we could still admire the originality and effort. Ultimately, it’s quite a feat of engineering to see a dramatically complex WWII story somehow leaving you feeling all warm, fuzzy and wanting to dance.
Best way to watch it: In a History Class for pre-schoolers.