World War II has been done! This is hardly a controversial claim when it comes to cinema; everyone and their mother has already made a film about World War II—whether about how bad the war was or how heroic—and seemingly every possible angle has already been covered. Filmmaker Taika Waititi, however, finds a way to stand out with Jojo Rabbit, a movie that refuses to be about the war at all, instead using his unique brand of dry humour to tell a story of rabid fanaticism which happens to occur during WWII.
Jojo Rabbit follows a scrawny child named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), who lives with his single mother (Scarlett Johansson), goes to camp, and dreams of one day growing up to be big and powerful. This would be a more universal story if Jojo’s version of big and powerful wasn’t being a literal nazi and befriending Adolf Hitler. Oh, he also has an imaginary friend: Hitler himself, as portrayed by Waititi. Eventually, Jojo’s life is turned upside down upon realizing that his mother is hiding one of his sworn enemies, a Jew, in the house.
This is a weirdly high concept comedy that would likely crumble in the hands of just about anyone else, but Waititi is not just anyone else. His back catalogue has shown that he’s capable of high concept comedies as well as great character work, which leads up to this film that is somehow genuine despite lacking a single shred of reality. Furthermore, the characters are all fleshed out so well that the viewer will appreciate them without ever once giving their beliefs the benefit of the doubt. Jojo Rabbit maintains an incredible balance between empathy and horror, between comedy and tragedy, between naiveté and absolute evil. After all, Jojo is a simple child whose understanding of good and evil has been skewed since birth.
It would be a disservice to the film to give all the credit to Waititi however. Credit should also be given to the ensemble, such as Thomasin McKenzie – in what could well be her star-making role – as the Jewish girl, Elsa, seeking refuge. Davis’ Jojo is an unforgettable mixture of childish innocence and pure malevolence, Johansson is very good as the ultra-sympathetic mother, and the actors filling out the nazi cast who straddle the line between ridiculous and disgusting.
I’m anticipating the think pieces and hot takes once more people see Jojo Rabbit. Films that attempt to deal with nazis in a nuanced way are usually better off not doing it at all. With Waititi’s movie, however, instead of giving the audience sympathetic nazis, Jojo Rabbit reminds us that extremists begin life as children and children can be cured of hate before it is too late. This in no way forgives nazis or gives them any sense of compassion; it is simply an important thing to remember in the age of online indoctrination and YouTube fascism. Instead of seeing this as an attempt at humanizing nazis, Jojo Rabbit should be seen as a battle cry: stop white supremacist violence at the source.
But also, enjoy this bitter dark comedy – and laugh at the ridiculous nazis to keep from crying.
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Shahbaz Khayambashi: @Shakhayam