How do you defeat hate? Is it even possible? When hate can become the cornerstone for entire communities, and even get people access to the world’s highest authorities, how can anybody counter that?
Director Taika Waititi argues that the best response to hate is laughter and love, and his “anti-hate satire” Jojo Rabbit is designed to provoke and evoke exactly those things.
Jojo Rabbit‘s eponymous protagonist is a 10-year old boy, played by newcomer Roman Griffin Davies, who lives in 1940s Nazi Germany, and so has only known the regime of Adolf Hitler in his living memory. As such, he loves Hitler so much, that he sees the Nazi leader as his imaginary friend – a role played by Waititi. Jojo is keen to serve his Führer and his country, and the film opens with him attending a Hitler Youth training camp run by Captain Klezendorf and Fräulein Rahm, played by Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson respectively.
Jojo’s adulation for the Third Reich leads him into inadvertent peril though, and an incident early in the story leaves Jojo unfit for military service. Undeterred, he signs up to share propaganda around his town, and as a consequence of serving the Party closer to home, Jojo finds himself privy to a secret in his own home: his mother, played by Scarlett Johansson, is harbouring a Jewish girl in his dead sister’s bedroom walls.
This revelation sets the film’s main conflict in motion; as Jojo learns more about Elsa, the girl in the wall played by Thomasin McKenzie, he struggles to fit her in with the anti-Jewish propaganda he’s been brought up with outside his home and which he believes entirely. It’s a conflict played mostly for laughs, as Jojo and imaginary Hitler try and use what they “know” about Jewish people to oust her from the safety of his home.
As a satire, the film goes as broad as possible with its portrayal of the higher-ranking Nazis. Every named character donning the Swastika armband – with the exception of Jojo – is shown as a bumbling idiot who sees no issue with sending children off to war in cardboard uniforms. There is a darkness there, and an early interaction between Jojo, his friend Yorki and a group of older Hitler Youths exposes the sadism and malice programmed into those enlisted in the system at an early age. Waititi is however far more interested in the relationship between Jojo and Elsa over any deep insight into the later years of Nazi Germany, so the peripheral Nazi characters, as heavy as they are as caricatures, are never made to be anything more than a quick jab at the regime.
Waititi knows how to spin a yarn about oddball characters who are quickly thrown into a new outlook on life, as he proved in the magnificent Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and although the end result isn’t quite as effective here, Jojo Rabbit gets along well enough. This is almost entirely down to the performances of McKenzie and Griffin Davies, who play their central roles without any knowing smile or hint of satirical self-awareness. Jojo’s world begins to fall apart around him, both figuratively and literally, as the Allies make their way through Western Europe, and Elsa’s careful attempts at tearing down Jojo’s belief in Hitler as a figure to worship come to a head.
The key there is by choosing the same tactic as Jojo’s anti-Nazi mother: by meeting his indoctrination of hate with nothing but love – and the occasional ridiculing – Elsa finds a way to save Jojo once and for all. It’s a path not without a great amount of tragedy for the young boy, and Jojo Rabbit doesn’t hesitate to go for the emotional beat a lot of the time, but the film absolutely commits to its tone and the end result is a relatively feel-good, occasionally stodgy piece of cinema.
The sad truth though, is that Jojo Rabbit isn’t nearly radical enough to set the world on fire. Waititi has a great instinct as a director, and his output will always be worth catching, but Jojo Rabbit feels like a satire lacking any satirical bite. If nothing else, it’s a sweet coming-of-age story with two fantastic young actors who take the opportunity to present themselves to the world with both hands (expect McKenzie especially to show up a lot over the next decade), and a performance from Scarlett Johansson which, if it weren’t for her other film which showed at the London Film Festival, would be talked up for award nominations.
Its slightness aside, Jojo Rabbit is a sweet little film made with a lot of love. Given the current situation in which the world has found itself, maybe that’s enough for a film like this to do.