Germany, 1945. Outside the war is petering out, but Jojo is preparing himself for a holiday at the Hitlerjugend holiday camp. Like many 10-year olds he has an imaginary friend. Unlike most, his friend is one Adolf Hitler. These are unusual times.
Over the opening credits we hear the Beatles singing in German. On the screen in front of us we see cuts of the Nuremberg rallies from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph Of the Will”. And yet, these clips look remarkably similar to scenes from “A Hard Day’s Night”. This is Nazi Chic as Beatlemania. A pathology has taken over the collective consciousness.
At the holiday camp Jojo acquires the nickname of Jojo Rabbit. Accused by some older boys of being cowardly, he refuses to let them goad him into killing a rabbit with his bare hands. This is not quite the Fascist Donald Sutherland headbutting a cat to death in the film 1900, but we’re not far off. Old values no longer apply.
The joke is that although Jojo and his friend Yorki aspire to be part of the Master Race, they are anything but. Jojo cried for 3 weeks when he found out that his grandfather wasn’t blond. Yorki is tubby, and they are both accident prone, leading to a number of pratfalls, most of which appear in the trailer. Jojo isn’t even able to tie his shoes or to wink properly.
Yet he is still an aggressively committed Nazi, buying into all sorts of theories about German supremacy and the subhumanity of Jews. So, he becomes conflicted when he discovers that his mother is hiding a young Jewish woman, Elsa, in their attic, even more so when he starts to develop a youthful crush on the horned devil.
That’s the set up, which anticipates all sorts of dangers. The film could become mawkishly sentimental or display a liberal superficiality which doesn’t say much more than Nazis are Bad and antisemitism is Stupid. To be honest, it does fall slightly into both of these traps, but not in a way that ruins it as a film.
More serious was the accusation that it sentimentalizes the Holocaust. The charge sheet is as follows. There is little sense of the real horror of the industrial genocide that was being carried out in one of the world’s richest nations. The Nazis are all portrayed as incompetent cartoon characters and the events are shown as if they were farcical and belong to a different era. This is playing with fire at a time when fascism is once more on the rise.
I think there is some truth in this criticism, and I certainly would have preferred it if Jojo Rabbit were a little harder politically and if the humour were a little darker. There is a little too much levity for its subject matter. But it is simply not true that there is no sense of danger. A number of scenes take place in a market square full of the hanging bodies of “traitors”. (“What did they do?” Jojo asks his mother. “What they could”, she replies).
And it is certainly true that Taika Waititi as Hitler is not a well-rounded character. For most of the time, the imaginary Hitler bounces along balletically, like a small child. As Jojo spends more time with Elsa, Hitler gets petulant about being losing his friend to a gurl. And yet this boyish figure is still occasionally capable of bursting into racist rants that leaves you cowering in the corner.
Similarly, Stephen Merchant as a gormless Gestapo officer is largely an incompetent buffoon. But sometimes he utters a quiet word or gives you a look that makes it clear that if you get on the wrong side of him, it will be your body hanging in the market square tomorrow. The performance is much more nuanced than you’d expect from the one who co-wrote the Office who wasn’t irritatingly smug.
Now you can complain that the Nazis on screen aren’t ruthlessly evil, but would you really expect the crack cadre to be administering a small town as the war was being lost? Because the problem with the Nazis wasn’t that they were all competent but that even the most stupid of them had the power to wreck lives.
This is around the time that Roberto Begnini’s Life is Beautiful is rolled out to “prove” that any attempt to make a comedy about Hitler and the Holocaust is bound to end up in trivial sentimentality. Now Life is Beautiful is not just a bad film but also an insensitive one, not least because of its apparent belief that the horrors of the Holocaust can be wished away by nice stories. But just think of The Producers. Or even The Great Dictator. It is possible to laugh about Nazism, if you do it with appropriate sensitivity.
While Jojo Rabbit doesn’t contain anything like the depth or gravitas of The Great Dictator (or even The Producers), it shares their ability to draw laughs from Hitler and is perfectly decent at what it does. Jojo’s character has a believable arc, and the supporting acting is largely superb, not least from Scarlett Johansson’s mother with divided loyalties between the resistance and her indoctrinated son.
The best performance, though, comes from Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf, the “good Nazi”. I know, I know, but this is not someone who has suddenly turned anti-racist but one who has become worn down by a losing battle (as Yorki says, “our only friends left are the Japanese, and between you and me they don’t look very Aryan”). So Klenzendorf is less a moral paragon than someone who lacks his previous commitment. He is more pathetic than virtuous.
After losing an eye, Klenzendorf was taken out of the regular army and was given a job running the exercises at holiday camp. He loses that job after Jojo nearly kills himself with a hand grenade and is given more civic duties. He is further conflicted as he seems to have the hots for his (male) deputy. On two occasions he is able to look away and save Jojo, and his final act of self-sacrifice is somewhat poignant.
Jojo Rabbit is a little shallower than it should be, particularly given its subject matter. I could have particularly done without everyone speaking in a fake Tcherman accent, especially as some of the younger actors often forget this half way through a sentence. Nonetheless, the film has some hidden depths, and, most importantly, it manages to be both respectful and fun.
Some of the criticism that it has generated has been justified, and has maybe engendered a reaction of other critics being blind to any of the film’s faults. But there are much worse things to do with your evening and its well worth a visit.