A young boy in Nazi Germany turns for moral guidance to a fantasy figure of Adolf Hitler in this satire that has sharply divided critics
By Jay Stone
TORONTO — Film festivals need movies that people can argue about, and the Toronto film festival has been blessed with a good one: Jojo Rabbit, a comedy set in Nazi Germany. Some people, including half of the representatives of Ex-Press.com, argue that it’s juvenile, and in bad taste, and — worst of all — not funny. Others, including the other half of Ex-Press.com staff, think it’s bold, original and filled with laughs.
And we’re not the only ones. The aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes gives it a favourable rating in the 70s, but the opinions are wildly divergent, from raves (“a triumph. A film of sophisticated brilliance and humour:” Jason Gorber, HighDef Digest) to pans (“conventional, lazy and incredibly irresponsible filmmaking:” Jordan Ruimy, World of Reel.)
Personally, I thought it was terrific even as it danced on a tightrope between, well, sophisticated brilliance and irresponsible filmmaking. If it wasn’t quite as astonishing as it was trying to be, it was at least audacious. And despite its subject matter, it was always clearly on the side of the good guys.
The hero is a 10-year-old boy named Jojo (the wonderful Roman Griffin Davis) who sees himself as an enthusiastic Nazi in the waning years of the Second World War. In fact, as we are about to learn, Jojo is just a nice kid who has been carried away by the deranged enthusiasm — not to say mass hysteria — of a country in the thrall of an insane man. Director Taika Watiti (Thor Ragnorak, What We Do In The Shadows) starts the film with a scene of Jojo skipping down the street giving a childish Nazi salute, intercut with propaganda footage of crowds raising their arms to the Fuhrer while on the soundtrack, we hear a German-language version of the Beatles’ song I Want To Hold Your Hand. That montage of anachronism, absurdity, terror, and transgression is an ideal introduction to what is coming.
Jojo gets his nickname when he refuses to show his iron-willed dedication to the cause by killing a rabbit as part of his training in a Hitler Youth camp. The camp is run by boozy, disillusioned commander, played with great cynical panache by Sam Rockwell, and an insanely anti-Semitic assistant (Rebel Wilson). It’s then that we begin to suspect Jojo isn’t the Nazi he wants to be, even though he turns for moral guidance to his imaginary friend, a slapstick version of Hitler himself, played by Watiti as a sort of wild-eyed comic lunatic who wouldn’t have been out of place as the lead in Springtime For Hitler, the play-within-a-play in Mel Brook’s paean to bad taste, The Producers.
The drama in Jojo Rabbit comes when the boy discovers his single mom (a sympathetic Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a pretty and feisty Jewish teenager (Thomasin McKenzie, of Leave No Trace) in the attic. Jojo at first wants to know the secrets of the Jews — do they really sleep suspended from the ceiling, like bats? — but soon finds himself learning that the only non-humans are the ones with swastika armbands.
The buffoonery of the Hitler character (“So, how’s it all going with that Jew thing upstairs?” he asks the boy) is only one of the film’s crimes against convention. There are also several murderous changes in tone: the comic idiocy of the Nazis is interrupted by a scene of members of the underground being hanged by the neck in the town square. Real horror peeks around the edges of the satire, and those who hate Jojo Rabbit find it unforgivably cheap. But Watiti mostly finds a balance — much as Charlie Chaplin achieved in The Great Dictator — that allows him to belittle the Nazis while giving humanity to their victims.
Based on a serious novel, Caging Skies, by Christine Leunens, Jojo Rabbit is like a simplistic version of The Death of Stalin, the 2017 British satire that also found dark laughs in the world of a mass murderer. It’s not as sophisticated, but it has its own energy, and it manages to find a happy ending — the Allies won the war, after all — for most of the principals. Fascism continues to be dangerous in the world. Mocking it continues to be a powerful weapon.
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