Nazi-centric films don’t tend to be particularly fun. That’s not a criticism, per se; the Holocaust is not, in of itself, a barrel of laughs. But it does present a challenge to filmmakers hoping to keep the defining horrors of the last century fresh in the mind of a new generation. Something like Schindler’s List or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas isn’t exactly going to have teenagers rushing to their nearest cinema.
Enter Taika Waititi. As a director, he’s spent the past dozen years crafting consistently fun and funny films that manage to appeal to all ages while tackling (semi-)serious themes without needing to sacrifice one iota of his instantly-identifiable individuality. A Taika Waititi film is an event for young and old – even if it centres entirely on nefarious Nazis, as does Jojo Rabbit. An adaptation of Christine Leunen’s novel Caging Skies, Waititi’s latest takes a serious premise – a Nazi pre-teen sheltering a Jewish teenager in the Reich’s final days – and adds a humorous spin exemplified by his casting of himself as the pre-teen’s imaginary friend, Hitler.
As you might expect, this isn’t to everyone’s liking. I’ve already seen more than a few critics react virulently to this film, accusing Jojo Rabbit of trivialising and empathising with Nazism without offering much in terms of insight. Certainly, going into the film – which rounded out the Jewish International Film Festival back in November here – I was dubious. Too many “anti-hate satires” – as Jojo Rabbit describes itself – fall into the trap of turning Nazis into jokes and, hence, undermining the gravity of the Holocaust and surrounding events.
Personally, I felt that Waititi avoids that trap with Jojo Rabbit. His protagonist, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), is a ten-year-old boy who’s enthusiastically drunk the National Socialist Kool-Aid. Thus, the majority of the film is told from the Nazi perspective. Jojo is an avid – if inept – member of the Hitler Youth, and defies his mother’s (Scarlett Johansson’s) more humanistic impulses. He’s fearful of the aforementioned Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie), sheltering in his home, having wholeheartedly bought into anti-Jewish propaganda, and worships at the altar of authority figures sketched with increasingly absurdity.
But, also, empathy. Waititi’s Hitler might be a monster, but he’s also charming; that’s what you get with Waititi, after all. Rebel Wilson’s Fräulein is intermittently amusing, with Sam Rockwell – in what’s increasingly turning to typecasting – is an unambiguously sympathetic Army officer. It’s these characters that seem to have attracted most of the ire of naysayers, but I think it’s these characters – and their broader incorporation into Jojo’s narrative – that makes the film work as well as it does.
Specifically, Waititi is trying to dig into Nazi psychology with the film. He’s not trying to present a new perspective on Nazis, but instead of taking a familiar resistance narrative – how do you fight such an inhuman juggernaut from the inside? – he flips the script to try and understand how such juggernauts grow. It’s a perfect refutation to the rise of extremist ideologies in the last decade or so, particularly amongst youngsters. Instead of treating Nazis as verboeten – which only makes them more enticing to rebellious teens – or as ridiculous, he understands that many Nazis were seemingly ‘nice’ and friendly. They aren’t monsters or clowns, but people – people of capable of supporting immense evil because it aligns with their self-interests.
Which isn’t to say Jojo Rabbit is a perfect film. As in Ragnarok, the funny stuff works way better than the serious stuff, and the tonal shifts between the two aren’t navigated as neatly as in, say, Boy. It probably works too hard to absolve its protagonists of his sins; just because Elsa might tell Jojo he’s “not a Nazi” doesn’t necessarily make it true. But it’s the rare Nazi film that manages to be entertaining and appealing to younger audiences without falling into triteness.