Jojo Rabbit movie review: Taika Waititi humanises Hitler in the most well-made bad movie of 2019
Director - Taika Waititi
Cast - Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Taika Waititi
Jojo Rabbit is a creative flex so extraordinarily misguided that I fear the age-old Hollywood tradition of rewarding filmmakers for delivering financially successful films by writing them blank cheques to pursue passion projects might be discontinued. It is the most well-made bad movie of the year. This is not, however, a conclusion that I have come to overnight.
Director Taika Waititi’s follow-up to Thor: Ragnarok is a well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed film. In its attempts to channel the political satire of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, it ends up trivialising a real-world tragedy. Perhaps Waititi should’ve paid attention to Chaplin, who years later admitted in his autobiography that had he been fully aware of the ‘actual horrors of the German concentration camps’ he would not have made a film about the ‘the homicidal insanity of the Nazis’.
Watch the Jojo Rabbit trailer here
Jojo Rabbit is far more problematic. It doesn’t merely make fun of the Nazis; it attempts to humanise them. To make matters worse, it casts Sam Rockwell in a terribly similar role to the one he played, to great acclaim but significant blowback, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The difference this time is that Rockwell isn’t playing an archetype, but an actual Nazi.
We are perhaps only a few years away from losing the last remaining survivors of the Holocaust. On both sides. Soon enough, we will not have first-hand human accounts to rely upon, but books and films. Jojo Rabbit’s legacy will be vital in shaping future generations’ idea of not just the massacre of six million Jews, but also of humanity in general — of the evil we were capable of, and left unchecked, the evil we are capable of repeating.
Of course, it is not unusual for filmmakers to address the horrors of the real world with humour. But a crucial difference between what Chaplin achieved in 1940, during World War 2 (or even what Sacha Baron Cohen did more recently with The Dictator), and Jojo Rabbit is that Waititi strikes a deliberately off-putting tone.
By cutifying Nazis, and more egregiously, by turning Adolf Hitler into a loveable oaf, the film dilutes the lasting effects of their actions, and normalises similar ideas being contemplated across the world, as we speak.
In Jojo Rabbit, a radicalised boy indoctrinated by the Hitler Youth discusses with great passion the prospect of a world without Jews. Together with his imaginary friend, the Fuhrer himself, young Johannes dreams of one day becoming a full-fledged Nazi, aiding in the ‘extermination’ of a race he’s been told is like vermin. In the light of recent events in our own country, when members of the ABVP — the elected government’s youth wing — were accused of carrying out a planned attack on students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, this strikes as an especially difficult idea to appreciate.
While it would be stupid to suggest that Waititi is sympathising with Nazis, or in any way forgiving Hitler, the extent to which the film is willing to go to mock him and everything he stood for is unambiguously inadequate. For instance, Hitler in the film insists that the rumours about him having just one testicle are inaccurate; he has four. He says he survived the assassination attempt by Claus von Stauffenberg thanks to his superior mind-reading powers. He also says that he has bulletproof legs, and that for dinner, he enjoys eating unicorn.
Jojo Rabbit would rather make juvenile jabs such as this than directly confront its serious themes. The ongoing war is never seen, and is only ever mentioned in passing. Waititi instead handles the subject with kid gloves, and inserts shots of hanging bodies, publicly lynched; and of personal belongings strewn about on the streets, evidence of a Jewish family’s apparent arrest.
I did, however, appreciate Scarlett Johansson’s (Oscar-nominated) performance as Johannes’ mother, who understands that for her son to survive in Nazi Germany, she must allow him to turn into a monster, with the hope that one day, the decency that she has imparted upon him will prevail. Her husband -- Johannes’ father -- is lost at war, her eldest child is dead, and her only living child is turning into a hateful bigot. It’s one of the most tragic ideas in a film that far too often veers into the treacly territory once trod by Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. For a large section of the world’s population, it most certainly is not.
At a time when Neo-Nazis are proudly congregating in America, and a certain far-right organisation is taking out rallies in India, Jojo Rabbit’s message of peace, love and understanding is a tad difficult to swallow. I have never been gladder to not have to reduce a film’s achievements, or lack thereof, to a star rating.