TIFF REVIEW – ‘Jojo Rabbit’ is an unashamedly irreverent satire of a painfully relevant moment in modern history

There is one golden rule of comedy; either everything is fair game or nothing is. But there are those who consider there to be a few exceptions to this rule (which, in itself, is the definition of an oxymoron). To some, the Nazism movement of the late 1930s seems to be off-limits when it comes to comedy, despite the fact Adolf Hitler has been satirised for decades by The Three Stooges, Walt Disney, Looney Tunes, Mel Brooks, and, perhaps most famously, Charlie Chaplin.

By expertly satirising something, you remove its power. That is the inherent purpose of this form of comedy. At a time when Nazism has reared its ugly head again, there could be no better time for a film like Jojo Rabbit and a filmmaker like Taika Waititi to lampoon Hitler and mock the absolute hell out of the new fascist movement that’s currently permeating around the globe.

While the divisive film won’t be for everyone, for fans of absurdist comedy, this one is absolutely for you. But what sets Jojo Rabbit apart is an unexpected emotional core that highlights the gorgeous power of family, love, and friendship. In its truest form, the film is essentially a coming-of-age drama of one young boy’s journey away from radicalisation and instead towards tolerance. Hiding behind all the satirical brilliance, there’s a beating heart here that’s hard to resist.

Waititi sets the tone for his creation right from the opening moments, where a video montage of frenzied “Heil Hitler!” saluting crowds greet the Führer to the refrains of a German-language version of  The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” essentially comparing Beatlemania with the rise of the Nazi Party. Somewhere in Nazi Germany, ten-year-old Jojo Betzler (a terrific debut from Roman Griffin Davis) has been swept up by this very hysteria, completely indoctrinated into the party, much to the chagrin of his doting mother and secret anti-Nazi activist, Rosie (an endearing Scarlett Johansson).

In the absence of his father, who’s off fighting the war somewhere in Europe, the lonely Jojo has been fully radicalised by Nazism, even going so far as to create an imaginary friend out of Adolf Hitler (Waititi) himself. Fervently believing every piece of Nazi propaganda he’s been subjected to his entire life, Jojo excitedly heads off to Hitler Youth Camp, a training facility for young Nazis, overseen by the half-blind Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his bumbling deputies Finkel (Alfie Allen) and Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson).

But the camp proves to be fraught with problems for young Jojo, with the older boys bullying him for his lack of physical strength and inability to murder an innocent rabbit, leading to the creation of his new titular nickname. Overeager to prove himself and spurned on by his imaginary advisor, Jojo ultimately suffers an unfortunate accident, causing him to be sent back home to his mother.

Scarred and injured, Jojo is left to perform lowly tasks for the Nazi cause, rather than be sent off to the front lines to fight like his fellow young comrades (yes, the Nazis sent children off to war). After hearing some odd noises in the upstairs bedroom of his late sister, Jojo is horrified to discover his mother has been secretly harbouring young Jewish girl Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie) in the crawlspace behind the bedroom walls.

Fearing brutal retribution for his family if he turns Elsa in, Jojo keeps his discovery a secret, instead choosing to use the opportunity of proximity to a Jew to confirm the propagandistic theories he’s been fed about the Jewish people like their ability to read each other’s minds or their preference for sleeping hanging upside down from the roof. But, much to the fury of his pal Adolf, a surprising connection begins to grow between the mismatched pair.

In essence, Jojo Rabbit is two wildly different films rolled into one, perfectly balanced by writer/director Waititi. On one hand, it’s a satirical romp that rightfully exposes how buffoonish Adolf Hitler truly was and how utterly ludicrous Nazi beliefs were and, more importantly, still are. It’s easy to see how laughs elicited from these very ideas could be seen as offensive, given the unimaginable tragedies born from such xenophobia and racism during World War II. Waititi never once denies history, but rather seeks to rob the past of its energy, especially in a climate where such hatred is rising once more.

In an age where impressionable children (and plenty of adults, too) can be so easily indoctrinated into all sorts of fascist propaganda via social media and the internet, Jojo Rabbit paints a portrait of a youngster so taken with such ideology, he would literally imagine its leader as his best friend and personal life coach. It’s a scary proposition that offers a glimpse into how effective propaganda can be on those without the developed minds to see it for what it really is. By satirising white nationalism, Waititi denies the movement the desire to be taken seriously; something they so desperately want.

But for all its absurdist humour, Jojo Rabbit offers equal helpings of serious drama that never make light of the events occurring during this time period, typified by the gallows in the town square where the lifeless corpses of several “criminal” locals dangle. For all its levity, an inescapable sombre tone looms over the entire film, reminding us war is still raging and people are still senselessly dying.

For all that will be made over the relationship between Jojo and imaginary Hitler, Jojo Rabbit is ultimately far more focused on the evolving connection between the young boy and his secret Jewish stowaway. What begins as a conflict of two opposing sides of a pointless war soon becomes something far deeper, as Jojo travels an enlightening voyage of self-discovery that challenges everything he’s ever known of those he’s been taught to hate.

It’s a deft display of the power of conversation and what can occur when we simply listen to one another, particularly to those outside our insular community bubbles. As Jojo and Elsa slowly begin to connect, we’re given a series of powerfully emotional moments that highlight how easily differences can be overcome when we take the time to understand one another and reject preconceived notions injected into our minds. It’s compassion that rings truest in Waititi’s screenplay. It’s just obscured by the ridiculous hilarity the marketing of the film is so keen to push.

At the centre of Jojo Rabbit are two impeccable performances from our young leads, highlighting Waititi’s impressive skill for directing juvenile performers. Again showcasing the director’s knack for uncovering young talent, Davis proves to be a real find, effortlessly handling the responsibility of essentially carrying this entire film on his shoulders. With an innocence that’s truly charming, Jojo’s conflicting emotions are so beautifully displayed on Davis’ enormously expressive face. His chemistry with both McKenzie and Johansson is authentic, crafting two relationships full of raw emotional power.

After her breakout performance in last year’s Oscar-ignored Leave No Trace, McKenzie continues to impress as a young girl trapped by the devastation surrounding her. While Elsa displays keen strength and toughness in challenging Jojo and plays the boy’s misguided ideologies against him, there’s a deep vulnerability to her character that echoes the horrors she’s likely witnessed. McKenzie handles both sides to her role with talent beyond her years, crafting a character that’s truly compelling.

Surrounding the young leads are a wondrous cast of supporting characters, led by a warm performance from Johansson as Jojo’s loving mother, who is constantly exacerbated at the brainwashed young Nazi her son has become. It’s a sympathetic role that will ring true for anyone who’s witnessed someone they love travel a path towards hate and have no idea how to turn them back. Rockwell is typically excellent as the Nazi trainer who’s far more layered than first appearances. And Wilson and Allen provide additional humour via some brilliant one-liners and physical comedy.

But it’s Waititi who consistently steals focus as the foolish Führer. In a hilariously exaggerated and over-the-top turn, Waititi plays Hitler like a petulant child and a blathering imbecile, juxtaposed by moments that reveal the German leader’s dark and menacing true nature. There are times where Hitler’s inclusion feels a little too self-indulgent on Waititi’s behalf. While the character is relatively sparingly used, occasionally his insertion in certain moments feels rather unnecessary and heavy-handed, robbing Davis of the chance to carry the scene on his own.

An ambitious and precarious project, Jojo Rabbit will likely divide audiences right down the middle. While the film is an unashamedly irreverent satire of a painfully relevant moment in modern history, the humour perfectly supplements the true potency of its deeply important message. Both wildly hilarious and incredibly touching, the film mocks the past while highlighting the dangers for our future. For all its absurdity, Jojo Rabbit is a deceptively powerful piece of cinema.

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson
Director: Taika Waititi
Producers: Carthew Neal, Taika Waititi
Screenplay: Taika Waititi
Cinematography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Production Design: Ra Vincent
Music: Michael Giacchino

Editing: Tom Eagles
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Date: 26th December 2019 (Australia)