Ads for Jojo Rabbit describe the film as an “anti-hate satire.” Before I get to the film, a comedic drama set in Germany during World War 2, I want to parse this phrase. From Swift’s modest proposal onward through Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, satirists have used humor and irony to ridicule the powerful. Satire is inherently anti-establishment, and hatred is ingrained in so much of what the establishment seeks to accomplish. Can there be such a thing as “pro-hate satire”? I don’t think so. Any attempt would not be satire, but propaganda. It is like Fox Searchlight and writer/director Taika Waititi want to assure audiences that they do NOT endorse Nazism, or Hitler. The thought behind this assurance encapsulates the issues with Jojo Rabbit rather elegantly.
Working from a novel by Christine Leunens, Waititi wastes no time plunging us into the world of Hitler youth. The opening scenes unfold at a summer camp – sort of like Boy Scouts, but with more anti-Semitism – and Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is eager to participate in the fun. Enthusiastic and awkward, Jojo is a lonely boy whose imaginary friend is the Fuhrer himself. Waititi plays a broadly comic Hitler, an effete sort who cares more about manners than leading an army. An accident with a hand grenade leaves Jojo housebound, so he has no choice but to spend time with his mother (Scarlett Johansson). One day Jojo hears a strange noise in the walls, and he discovers his mother is protecting Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teenager. Needless to say, imaginary Hitler is not happy about this.
When Jojo Rabbit is funny – which is frequent – it is because the children lack the maturity to understand what they are saying. Recognizable adult actors do appear, like Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson who play full-on Nazis, but their subplots have the easy moral critique that children can understand. The story is ultimately up to Davis, who carries the film because he and Waititi resist the temptation to be cute, or precious. Archie Yates plays Jojo’s friend Yorki, and he deadpans the faults of Nazism so innocently that audiences may remember him best. The main arc of the film is how Jojo, Elsa, and the others are able to break down their prejudices, letting their basic decency finally take hold. This story is heart-warming because the young characters are so resistant to this impulse, and the stranglehold of Nazism is so powerful. By the time Jojo and Elsa forge an uneasy friendship, dancing in the street, Waititi wants you to believe love and tolerance is the answer.
The trouble is that love and tolerance is not always the answer. It took armies, bombs, and strategy to overcome Nazism. And given the recent rise of the extremist right-wingers, the Allies were not all that successful the first time. Jojo Rabbit is not simply a childish fantasy set during World War 2, and Waititi understands the real world ekes into the simplistic worldview of his young hero. This is where the film starts to be tedious, since it has a point of view problem it cannot overcome. It frames Johansson’s character as if she is plucky and resilient, without the full context to show her quirks are a way to protect Jojo. She seemingly experiences no terror, and a more thoughtful film would not shy away from her decisions, or at least reveal what she is thinking. Maybe Waititi worries his film would be too much like Life Is Beautiful, but we must not forget it caught the popular imagination for a reason.
In formal terms, Waititi convincingly transitions from the pastoral warmth of The Sound of Music, to the dark postwar urban husk of The Pianist. His stylized camerawork creates comedic rhythms, and those patterns lead to a sense of tragedy. One shot is downright heartbreaking in how it upends what we think we know about the characters. All that filmmaking prowess cannot shake the tonal inconsistency. Waititi is no stranger to films that juxtapose comedy and drama: the underseen Hunt for the Wilderpeople did that, and so did his earlier work. Those were self-contained stories set in the present, and Jojo Rabbit comes with historical baggage it sometimes ignores – to its detriment. Few films have the courage to confront unblinkingly the horrors of Nazism and war. Downfall did that, and so did Come and See, but those films are unsparing in the cruelty they depict. Jojo Rabbit gets around to that, sort of, but it wants to have fun first.
I often think about a smart, illuminating interview where Terry Gilliam talks about the difference between Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. In it, he basically says that Spielberg’s work is too comforting. They provide answers, while Kubrick’s films do not. Schindler’s List, a great drama that includes depictions of slaughter, has an answer at the end. While Gilliam dismisses the success of Schindler’s List, at least it has the wherewithal to show the inhumanity and barbarism of Amon Göth, so it earns its note of beleaguered hope. Jojo Rabbit takes shortcuts in its storytelling because it is easier to skip the actual outcomes of government-sanctioned hate. It takes shortcuts because, frankly, it is morally facile to assume that there is an innocent, warm-hearted kid under every youth-sized Nazi uniform.