There are many ways to generate interest for a film. Franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been riding off the coattails of hype for years, as known Independent Products that have a quality of assurance seal on them. Granted, that seal is as trustworthy as a bat soup (topical), but it ironically takes a lot of work to be involved in such high-profile franchises and still not generate interest amongst audiences. Even the safest Marvel Films generate interest.
Another great way to generate interest is controversy. This is true for every form of media and is not news to anyone. If films have been using familiar franchises for a long time to generate ticket sales, using controversy to give a film attention is part of the genesis of film marketing. Even Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, not even the first film to satirise one of history’s bastards, garnered interest for its almost propagandistic look into Hitler. For anyone who hasn’t seen the film, Chaplin (the director as well) plays a foolish version of Hitler, persecuting the Jewish race whilst trying to hide his hideous insecurities and otherwise foolish decisions.
The film was banned in Nazi controlled Europe. The mind boggles…
Naturally, that brings us seventy years later to Taika Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit. A film where Taika Waititi plays a foolish version of Hitler, persecuting the Jewish race whilst trying to hide his hideous insecurities and otherwise foolish decisions. Kind of.
Well, the film is actually about a young Nazi fanatic called Johannes, played by Roman Griffin Davies in his theatrical debut, who eventually adopts the title of JoJo, finding a Jewish teenager in his attic. This comes after suffering a serious injury at a Jungevolk camp experience, leaving him mostly housebound, with the exception of his work for drunken Captain Klenzendorf, played by Sam Rockwell.
You may have noticed in my plot summary that one of the features I left out was probably the aspect of the film you know best; Johannes has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend. This is the maypole of the controversy I was talking about earlier, as this sounds like a risky move for an artist to take. Obviously, this gained some criticism from those who hadn’t seen the film yet, namely everyone. I found the concerns strange, to be honest. Yes, it is pretty crass and juvenile to have a figure of such universal loathing as an imaginary friend, but this is a film about from the perspective of a ten-year-old Nazi enthusiast, so I’d expect a little bit of crassness. It seems a bit hypocritical to criticise a fictional story where Hitler is portrayed with the mental capacity and reasoning of a ten-year-old and turn a blind eye to the actual story of the chaos that surrounded Stalin’s death, parodied in the 2017 film The Death of Stalin. Where was the rally cries of paranoid moviegoers, when Armando Ianucci’s masterpiece made some of the most tastelessly funny jokes of actual events? Surely it can’t be better to make a joke out of actual deaths that happened in Communist Russia, then to make a joke out of a fictionalised version of an equally terrible dictator?
I have to start on a bit of a criticism, which doesn’t feel right, but is definitely important. The trailer that was released late last year generated the amount of press you’d expect from a film whose protagonist has Hitler as an imaginary friend, but there was definitely an air of curiosity about the whole project. The trailer doesn’t show you much of Taika – Hitler, which I applaud, but places a great amount of focus on the Jungevolk Camp, where the minds of children are humorously warped into the Nazi ideal. Without spoiling too much, the camp is barely in the film at all. So, keep that in mind, but that may also just be my expectations.
If anyone is worried about the film perhaps trivialising the probably the darkest chapter in human history, I wouldn’t say you’re worries were totally misplaced. Comedy, I find, is often difficult to review as it is, without question, the most objective genre of entertainment that you’ll find in. Definitely keep this in mind when reading this review. So, you may not find the satirisation of children learning to do something as horrific as burn a book funny, in that case no matter what I say here will likely make the film worth watching for you.
So, this film was always going to have to try hard to shock me. JoJo Rabbit has a consistently morbid surrealism that persists every joke, that realises the gravity of each situation. When something is funny, it is compacted by the disturbing implications that people actually thought and acted like this. Jokes about the Nazi perceptions of the Jews are funny in the sense that it is ludicrous that a regime can warp a mind like this. That’s an incredibly difficult act to balance, to balance states as wildly different as humour and fear. Even the director of my favourite comedy of all time had his work cut out for him.
So, the million – dollar question is ‘Is the movie funny, despite its horrific source material and context’ to which I can safely say ‘It made me laugh’. Waititi as Hitler is easily the funniest part of the movie, as long as you remember this is a ten-year old’s recreation of Hitler. Adolf has tantrums, wildly ridiculous thoughts and captures the mindset of being a ten – year old boy. An adult acting like a child is usually funny if the actor can convince you a child would do the exact same thing in the exact same manner, and what emerges from this is something profoundly…profound. But, keeping up with the morbidity that I promise I’ll shut up about, some of the things that Waititi says as Hitler is not as far from fiction as you might hope. And yet the comedy of this film still feels like something that would be created during the Second World War, by way of propaganda. All of the Nazi characters, whilst still retaining their menacing devotion to the Third Reich, bumble and buffoon their way through this movie, similar to a myth trying to convince you of Hitler’s testicular issues.
The cast needs special mention here. Davies as JoJo is tragic in his misplaced faith but is also what makes his character sympathetic. Alfie Allen and Scarlett Johansson get some great lines in there as well, with Johnasson giving us a likably hopeful charater. Surprisingly, Rebel Wilson also holds her own in this movie, having one of the most morbidly horrific, what I hesitate to even call ‘jokes’ in the film, which is good cause I now only slightly hate her for being in Cats.
Sam Rockwell is an absolute scene stealer, however, as Captain Klenzendorf: a ridiculously over the top, disgraced captain stuck with the job of inspiring the youth of Germany to fit in with the Nazi ideal. I also had a particular fondness for JoJo’s friend, Yorkie, whose outspoken and immature presentation highlights the fundamental sadness of taking something as innocent as a child and turning it into a conduit of hate. He also has one of the funniest, yet touching lines towards the conclusion of this film, ringing true with so many children that it choked me up a little bit.
Yes. I, stand before you, the arrogant, cynical drunk, and will tell you the bit that the character who upset me the most in the film about child manipulation and the terror of hiding from a nation that wants you dead because of the race you were born to, was the fat kid who causes more trouble than he’s worth .
But all of this is nothing compared to the two stand out performances for me. The first is Stephan Merchant as the Gestapo Agent Deertz. I had no idea that the lanky git could be so intimidating, whilst still being funny. The second is the Young Jewish girl Elsa, hiding in JoJo’s attic, played by Thomasin McKenzie. I will admit that the film does not introduce her in the most professional manner, but she is later firmly established as a believable and emotionally gut-wrenching character. She and Davies need to portray characters that start off hating each other, as you would expect, to becoming accepting of one another. Granted, one ideal is more deserving of distrust than the other, but that is not the message of the film.
The film tells the stories of children who are conditioned to hate. Whether it be race, belief or sexuality, this film shows one of the real tragedies of teaching a child to despise anything it doesn’t understand. Obviously, this applies to JoJo, but Elsa is also an interesting perspective of hating the other side as well. Both characters hate each other for the actions of their ancestors or people, without much reason to dislike them as a person. And maybe that should be the message we take away from JoJo Rabbit. It’s abhorrent that so many young children’s minds were corrupted in such large numbers at once, and those who are responsible are detriments to society. But it also harkens back to the final speech from The Great Dictator:
“More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost”
JoJo Rabbit plays second best to a lotof other different forms of entertainment, weirdly. It’s the second-best film to satirise Nazi’s; the second-best film where Taika Waititi puts on a German accent, the second best film about Hitler in his final days and the second best form of entertainment with ‘JoJo’ in its title (none of you will get that). But, for what it’s worth, JoJo Rabbit, whilst not living up to my admittedly ridiculous expectations, hits enough emotional beats to keep me thinking about it for a long time. If you can imagine a crossover between Little Miss Sunshine and the iconic Are We the Baddies? Sketch from the Mitchell and Webb Look, you will probably get something along the lines of JoJo Rabbit. Just keep in mind that tantrum – throwing dictators and awkward Gestapo squads may not be your thing, so you’re doing an injustice to the film makers and your wallets if you go to see this film with the intent of hating it.