JoJo Rabbit works nearly all of the time, which for a comedy about the friendship between a small boy in the Hitler Youth and a Jewish girl, and with a buffoonish Hitler as an imaginary father figure, is pretty good going.
Writer-director Taika Waititi runs a tight ship when it comes to tonal changes, the switches from comedy to horror to pathos expertly handled at nearly every stage.
Occasionally it misses the spot – the “nice” Nazi trope doesn’t work, as it doesn’t feel like satire, and we have enough normalising of extreme right wing ideologies in real life right now. But on the whole this is a bitingly funny film, its satire and slapstick blunt and bold. The performances are excellent, particularly from the younger cast members.
Children are often used as propaganda machines in wartime, leaving loving parents on a knife edge in case criticism of a regime is innocently or deliberately repeated to the powers that be by their own offspring.
The fear of being shopped to the SS is palpable, and in this in-your-face satire it’s entirely fitting that the windows in buildings overlooking the town square, always with its homemade gibbet of dangling bodies, are shaped like eyes.
This child’s-eye story of the friendship between the 10 year old fatherless JoJo (dad is away somewhere, fighting, or something) and teenage Elsa, hidden by his mother in the roof spaces of their home, shows us the dangers and manipulations of children’s lives under murderous regimes: the persecution, the executions, the propaganda, the spying, the sending of kids literally into battle. It’s Lord Of The Flies but run by adults.
The fanatical, bright blonde Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson, excellently evil), proudly announces she’s birthed 18 babies for Germany. Menacingly smiling SS honcho Deertz (Stephen Merchant), searches homes with his identically dressed but considerably shorter crew, looking for enemies and resistance fighters.
And Sam Rockwell plays a supposedly redeemable racist yet again, this time a drunk Nazi officer whose injuries mean he can’t be sent to fight. He’s hilarious, as his Captain Klenzendorf staggers on stage in front of Germany’s brightest young future Nazis, his ability to shoot undimmed by his milky, sightless eye, his attitude to safety sure to please anyone who harks back to “the good old days”. Klenzendorf is a man who loves a good war, even if war doesn’t love him back – and he also knows when the game is up.
Meanwhile JoJo’s always-immaculate mum Rosie – a fabulously warm yet steely performance from Johansson, as Rosie seeks to save her son and her country, step by tiny step – fights against the regime from the inside.
JoJo (a very impressive Roman Griffin Davis) is a fanatic (that’s what his mum says anyway!), heading off to Klenzendorf’s camp to learn to be a man who can kill people. It’s his refusal to kill a rabbit during the weekend that leads to his nickname. In a regime where Nazi virtues are illustrated with metaphors about panthers, lions and tigers, JoJo is a scared rabbit.
Not everyone thinks he’s a coward though. Adolf Hitler (Waititi), who appears to JoJo at just the right moment to push him forward and boost his spirits, thinks he can be brave, though JoJo’s Hitler-inspired bravery then leads to the boy accidentally partially blowing himself up. (“He looks like a Picasso painting” says Fraulein Rahm, considering the blood-covered child in the ambulance afterwards.)
Thomasin McKenzie is terrific as the quick thinking, guarded and angry Elsa, given the job – in carefully convincing JoJo not to betray her – of saving both herself and him. Their friendship remains tentative for a long time, as JoJo writes his book about Jews and their characteristics, helped by Elsa feeding him every extreme prejudice levelled at them, including that they sleep like bats by hanging upside down.
And apparently the English like to eat babies and have sex with dogs too. (These are not the only dog references in JoJo Rabbit – there’s an A+ gag about German Shepherds.)
Initially Hitler is a combination of imaginary friend, dad and object of celebrity fandom. As JoJo wakes up to the lies he’s been fed about Jewish people, Hitler moves from the trusted figure onto whom JoJo has poured all his worries, to a more realistic depiction – though always framed with what what JoJo himself has discovered. Raging at the boy’s growing friendship with Elsa, Hitler shouts at the 10 year old to start acting like a 10 year old, before kicking a chair and storming out.
JoJo Rabbit is very much about the resilience of children: Elsa, JoJo and his little friend Yorki (a delightful Archie Yates). A straightforward, sunny-natured little boy, Yorki determinedly gets involved in whatever his superiors tell him to do, up to and including actual bombings.
Johansson’s costumes are fabulous – Rosie is a woman who doesn’t let standards slip even as she’s battling to save her son from Hitler’s clutches, and working against the regime. Her outfits always have tiny details (feathers in hats, a frill on a knitted dress, rich colours) beyond what we instantly recognise as “standard 1940s movie fashion”. Later her smart claret and cream shoes become a frightening reminder of what’s at stake.
JoJo Rabbit was initially promoted as “an anti-hate satire” on the teaser poster, presumably to ensure that the film wasn’t derailed before anyone could actually decide to go and see it or not. I hope so anyway, as otherwise the phrase sounds as if the marketing team think filmgoers are complete dimwits. Not that people may not like the idea of JoJo Rabbit – a comedy about Hitler is always going to polarise – but if comedy has to be pointed out we risk it deflating as we watch, its confidence and audaciousness disappearing in a hiss of hot air.
Still, whether you agree with me that satire can be a useful weapon against extremism or not, I’m sure we can find common ground. Let me finish with my favourite quote from the film: “Fuck off Hitler!”
Watch the trailer for JoJo Rabbit now and scroll down for images from the film: