‘Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.’ So wrote Charlie Chaplin, some two decades after his Great Dictator tickled the war torn millions of Europe and America. A further half century on, it’s hard to imagine that Taika Waititi will ever decree regret for Jojo Rabbit. If anything, the New Zealander is more likely to wind up wishing this deliriously flippant, self-proclaimed ‘anti-hate satire’ were more politically incorrect. And yet, if the brio of the film’s first half proves unsustainable across Waititi’s full script, such a decline barely detracts from the funniest film of the year bar none.
The complaints of culturally sensitive critics that Jojo Rabbit is satirically blunt and crass in its handling of dark contexts is hard to fault. It’s a matter of taste. By equal measure, it is entirely reasonable to applaud the film’s delicate deliverance of a child’s eye view of internal conflict, played out within heightened tonal and visual excess. It is not, after all, the average coming of age comedy that sets itself in Berlin and the winter of Hitler’s Third Reich. For that matter, on the subject of said tached dictator, it’s a rarer film still that has the audacity to frame Adolf as the buffoonish imaginary friend of its lead. Even Mel Brooks aimed his mockery through the guise of camp acting. To that end, Jojo Rabbit bears all the hallmarks of a film that’s existence very much owes a debt to the bigger budget success of its director’s wild imagination. Without Thor, it seems unlikely that the genius behind Boy and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople would have enjoyed such unquestioning financial support from Fox and, latterly, Disney.
It is Waititi himself, complete with horrific contact lenses, oversized uniform and iconic black smudge on his upper lip, who galvanises the film’s infantile recapitulation of Hitler. Summoned into pseudo reality by fanatical junior Nazi Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (an astounding Roman Griffin Davis), Waititi’s Adolf proffers poor advice, cigarettes and self-pity. Whilst the hilarity of the dizzying poor taste of it all can power the narrative for only so long, it is a credit to Waititi’s evident performative talent that his slapstick shtick never fails to amuse. Prior to a delicious final send off, Hitler highlights here include Waititi’s rogue forest flailing, swimming pool bathing suit and daft dialogic pattering: ‘you’re the bestest most loyal Nazi I’ve ever met’. It is certainly never too hard to forget that this is not the Hitler of history but that born of the mind of a boy self-described as being ‘massively into swastikas’. Thus, ‘hail me’ is quickly rendered the new high five.
Peculiarly, the novel from which Waititi claims inspiration bares precious little resemblance to the film he has produced. Christine Leunens’ Caging Skies is, perhaps most significantly, not actually supposed to be funny. Such dour origins for Jojo Rabbit become clearer only upon the arrival into Jojo’s life of Thomasin McKenzie’s Jewish hideaway Elsa. When Jojo inadvertently blows himself up with a badly aimed hand grenade, he is demoted from the local Hitler Youth to local bob a job. Unbeknownst to him, Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson – excellent) counters his work with support for the German resistance. This includes hiding Elsa, who reminds her of lost daughter Inge, in her own home. The encounter proves enlightening for blinkered Jojo – ‘where are your horns?’ – and is integral to the film’s shift toward darker terrains. In many ways, Jojo Rabbit is best compared to some composite union of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and last year’s Death of Stalin. Strong pedigree indeed.
While there is no faulting the film’s comic credentials – supporting stars Rebel Wilson, Sam Rockwell and newcomer Archie Yates tickle ribs like their careers depend on it throughout – it is not without flaws. Waititi’s skilful navigation of tonal polarisation is impressive but leans too heavily on humour to allow his intended emotional wallops to truly resonate. A notable final act death is shocking but fails to devastate as one knows it ought to, whilst nods to the contextual impact of so traumatic a conflict are thrown away too easily. A more perfect version of the film would surely have embraced absurdity in its entirety and left melodrama to the likes of Where Hands Touch and Suite Français. Jojo Rabbit works best when its morality is left lurking beneath the obvious. These are the instances in which uncontrollable laughter subsides to a potent mix of guilt and horror. Or when the absolute conviction of Waititi’s child stars goes unquestioned. It’s funny but oh so incredibly dark.