I love director Taika Waititi more than makes sense, more than is reasonable by any standard. His absurd sense of humour speaks to me. His arch commentary on the perfectly banal is what I live for. So it was with a heavy heart that I stepped out of the packed theatre and admitted to Sean, who’d rushed the film unsuccessfully (festival vernacular: “rushing” means standing in line for hours when you don’t have a ticket, in case some ticket holder doesn’t show), that Jojo Rabbit was just okay. And I kept up that ambivalence for all of 30 seconds before confessing that I’d loved loved LOVED it, despite having solemnly promised not to rub it in if he didn’t make it in. Sorry, Sean. Jojo Rabbit was fucking awesome.
It’s about a little boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) living in 1940s Germany. He’s a good little Nazi boy, an unthinking fanatic; his bedroom walls plastered with propaganda posters that reflect his somewhat innocent claim “I’m massively into swastikas.” So he’s utterly broken-hearted when he flunks out of Nazi sleepaway camp. He’ll never know the honour of serving in Hitler’s Guard. His father went away to war and hasn’t been heard from since so it’s just him and his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). What’s a devastated little fellow to do with no father figure around? Invent an imaginary friend, of course, and why not aim high and adopt everyone’s favourite Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) himself?
Jojo Rabbit is a satirical comedy about learned hate. It’s sympathetic to this child who blindly loves and trusts in Hitler, but doesn’t yet have a taste for blood or violence. Hitler is his Batman, his hero, but he’s about to learn that all heroes are flawed. And some turn out to be villains. But first, there’s a complication. Of course there’s a complication, as if growing up the outcast in Hitler’s Germany wasn’t hard enough. There’s a monster in the attic – or, in fact, a Jew (bless you), named Elsa (Thomasin Mckenzie). Jojo’s mom is hiding her so the secret must be kept. Hangings in the town square remind us of the stakes. But this pull between duty to his family and to his country creates an awful lot of pressure for one small boy, especially when his imaginary friend is quite critical of the situation, and Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a soldier who’s befriended him, is a little too close for comfort. It’s obviously a disorienting time for him, to find out inch by inch that the real monster is his imagined friend, and the girl in the attic is in fact a lot like him. Imagine the dissonance, the panic, the confusion, the revulsion.
Scarlett Johansson gets the chance to clown around as a mother trying her best to get her young son through a terrifying, grueling war. I can’t remember seeing her this loose and free on the screen before, which is ironic considering the character is rife with burden. In many ways, the mother is the most grounded character; you feel the weight of her responsibility, but also her vitality. She’s not merely trying to survive a war – she’s living. This is her now. Even when the world has gone to shit, there is no pause button. Sons must be raised. Homes must be kept. Jews must be hidden. But still, there is dancing.
Jojo is a complex character, embodying both hatred and innocence in one 10 year old body. It would have been critical to find the perfect and, I imagine, rare talent to fill the role, but believe me, this kid is up for it. He plays against McKenzie particularly well, who is in fact not a monster but a moody and sometimes bratty teenage girl. Neither is strictly the sinner nor the saint history imagines them to be. The two form the most tenuous, the most fraught of bonds, but it’s enough. Familiarity is often enough. It is a cultivator of hope, a vanquisher of fear.
My favourite scenes, however, are when Jojo’s imaginary pal Hitler drops by. Taika Waititi plays him without hindsight; his Hitler doesn’t yet understand how history will judge him. He still thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips. Waititi plays him fey, embracing the absurd conflict and duality of the character who is of course the architect of evil but also just a very small and not very brave man. He has fun with it but never forgets who this man is or why we hate him.
And it probably goes without saying that Sam Rockwell is having a ball. He’s done wild satirical stuff before so he approaches this with guts and gusto. Which is not to say that anyone in the cast fails to bring the necessary sensitivity to a movie like this. They do. But they also remember that no matter where they fall on the scale of good to evil, they were all just human beings.
It’s an interesting choice to go to Nazi Germany to deliver such a powerful message of anti-hate but where else would it have so much impact? And who else would endeavour to take it on except the fearless Taika Waititi, for whom rules seem not to apply. We worry about which subjects can be spoken of, and which can be made fun of, but the answer is pretty much anything if it’s funny enough. And Jojo Rabbit is funny enough – funny enough to counter hate with laughter, and isn’t that a beautiful thing? At another movie I saw at TIFF this year, Mr. Rogers reminded us that “anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable.” Jojo Rabbit helps us talk about difficult things. It’s an important act of remembrance, and Waititi shows us that even if we’re burning out on all those war stories, there can (and must) still be new and inventive ways of remembering. It’s not just a comedy. It made me laugh and it made me cry, but most of all it moved me to think of these people as human, like me. And how things got away on them little by little until it was too late. History repeats itself, but it’s not too late for us. Not yet.