About a minute into “Jojo Rabbit,” the film’s 10-year-old protagonist has a conversation with his imaginary friend — Adolf Hilter. The young Jojo Betzler (played by Roman Griffin Davis) is about to go on a Hitler Youth training weekend, and Hitler (director Taika Waititi) gives him some words of encouragement before the two practice, repeatedly, the proper way to say “heil Hitler.” So begins a strange entry in the canon of films about Nazi Germany.
Waititi’s sixth directorial outing, which is nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, is set near the end of World War II. It follows Jojo as his fanatical, brainwashed loyalty to the Nazi Party is tested when he encounters Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish girl his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding from the Nazis in the walls of their home. Waititi’s take on the subject is distinctly absurd, mirroring the perspective of the film’s child protagonist. Yet there are also moments of genuine pathos and a sincere exploration of the way prejudice feeds on ignorance. The result is a film that is sometimes funny and sometimes frustrating but moving nonetheless.
On a technical level, “Jojo Rabbit” playfully reimagines how a war story should look, feel and sound. The first two acts feature pastel colors and whimsical cinematography, more “Moonrise Kingdom” than “Saving Private Ryan” (a comparison that I’m not the first to make). This is no accident.
“I think in a lot of [war] films, the war is always depicted as being very dreary and depressing, and I mean definitely it was, but so you’re always seeing lots of browns and greys and blacks and muted colors, and it’s desaturated,” Waititi told Rotten Tomatoes. “But in actual fact, in Germany at the time, there was a lot of color going on. They were so into fashion and the latest trends.” The film captures that color well, and it’s a refreshing take on the well-worn subject matter.
As the film progresses, though, Jojo’s innocence is tested, and the sets and cinematography change to match. The color palette becomes muted, with more blues and greys and army-fatigue greens, evoking the feeling of a society under siege. In the film’s climactic sequence, when the Allied army arrives, we get a look at war through the eyes of a child. It’s filmed like a traditional war movie, but with a touch of the absurd that recalls Waititi’s work on “Thor: Ragnarok.”
As a rule, Waititi is unafraid to play with genre. A scene at a Hitler Youth camp parodies coming-of-age movies, with a montage of children burning books and learning to fight set to Tom Waits’s “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” Jojo’s first encounter with Elsa borrows heavily from horror, complete with high-pitched violins, a jumpscare reveal and a hand creeping out from behind a door frame. No wonder, as earlier in the film, Jojo is taught that Jews are monsters with horned heads. “I’m not a ghost, Johannes,” Elsa says when she has emerged from the wall, as she tries to intimidate Jojo into keeping quiet about her existence. “I’m something worse.” The scene effectively evokes the fear of the other, the way racist ideology can make an ordinary person seem like a monster.
Of course, Waititi’s distinctive brand of humor is present throughout the film, no matter how dark its context. Children burn books and play with grenades in an absurd parody of summer-camp fun; the imaginary Hitler eats unicorn meat while other characters scavenge for food to survive. Satirizing Nazis could easily feel insensitive, and indeed it sometimes does: In one unfortunate sequence, a mockery of the practice of saying “heil Hitler” is followed by a gut-wrenching moment in which Elsa must say the phrase, and thus the name of a man responsible for her parents’ death, in order to pass as German. Each part works on its own, but juxtaposing them serves to minimizes the tragedy of the Holocaust. On the whole, though, “Jojo Rabbit” has just the right mixture of audacity and empathy, while keeping it clear that the Nazis are the butt of the joke, so the humor goes awry about as infrequently as possible in a film with such heavy themes.
Whatever its technical chops, the most important part of “Jojo Rabbit” lives and dies by those themes, especially its exploration of Jojo’s struggle with his beliefs. It’s a film where a child protagonist has conversations with an imaginary Hitler — and where those conversations are played for laughs. It’s a bold choice, and one that is handled about as well as it could be. At the same time, in a story with so many moving parts and disparate tones, it eventually begins to feel jarring.
Waititi’s Hitler is a slapstick figure. As he talks to Jojo about Elsa in a scene set in a library, he suggests that the two can use books to “make a false floor that she will fall through, straight into a pit full of piranhas, and, and lava, and — bacon!” The character’s introduction comes as a shock, but he fits with the tone of the beginning of the film. Along with the over-the-top descriptions of supposedly monstrous Jewish people and the ridiculous antics of Jojo’s Hitler Youth group, the performance unveils the absurd nature of prejudice. Nazi ideology is a ridiculous illusion, and the film suggests that it would be laughable for anyone other than a child to buy into it. Waititi proposes that prejudice loses its power if we ridicule it.
There is some dissonance, however, between this light-hearted beginning and the film’s progression into more serious subject matter. In and of themselves, these parts of the film are often beautifully realized. The relationship between Jojo and Elsa — the emotional core of the film — is touching, and it serves as a reminder of the way human connection can overcome hatred. Johansson gives a heart-wrenching performance as a mother trying to break through her son’s vile beliefs and find the innocent boy inside. And Jojo’s struggle with Nazi ideology is an empathetic look at what it takes for someone to reject deeply-held, fundamentally flawed beliefs.
At the same time, these story elements remind us that prejudice is not in fact as benign as it appears in the beginning of the film. We see its ugly consequences in the arrival of war on Jojo’s doorstep, in the deaths of several characters, in Elsa’s tragic past and its evocation of the millions of victims of the Holocaust. It seems naive and insensitive to dismiss Nazism as laughable just before showing us the horrors that it caused.
Yet in a way, this disconnect is at the heart of the film’s message. Jojo’s understanding of Nazism was a childhood fantasy, and over the course of the film he slowly sees that ideology’s true ugliness. Waititi’s performance as Hitler reinforces this, the character becoming more serious and menacing as he tries to stop Jojo from abandoning his hateful beliefs. It is possible, Waititi seems to suggest, for an ideology to be both laughable and terrifying. It is possible for it to manifest itself in absurd ways and in dangerous ones. And it is possible to see laughter as a tool to combat prejudice and to recognize that it can’t do everything.
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In the end, “Jojo Rabbit” doesn’t have all the answers. It feels refreshingly nuanced at times and frustratingly naive at others. It’s a biting parody of Nazism, but because of its heavy subject matter its jokes can feel insensitive when they don’t land. In spite of these flaws, the film is a moving depiction of the way a nation’s hateful ideology plays out on a human scale. It is an exploration of the way good people fall for evil ideas, and the way those ideas can be overcome. Maybe most impressively, over the course of its complex, multi-layered plot, Waititi finds the time to be both funny and compassionate.