‘Jojo Rabbit’ is an outrageous satire about the deprogramming of blind patriotism and extremist points-of-view in the youth. It’s an out-of-the-box perspective of a young boy who must question everything he believes when confronted with the enemy he was taught to hate. Set in World War II Germany and the Nazis are losing the war, a young Nazi youth, Jojo, discovers his mother is secretly hiding and protecting a young Jewish girl and his world goes upside down.
From the beginning of this adaptation of Christine Leunens’ novel, written and directed by Taika Waititi, we are immediately made aware that this is an all out goofy comedy that does not pull its punches when it makes fun of the Nazis and their “hate everyone that isn’t us” ideology. It is unafraid to ridicule them as violent, bloodthirsty, and mindless followers of an extremist way of thinking.
This is the source of much of the comedy but through it, Waititi manages to ground it all in the eyes of ten year old Jojo, played with great moxie and verve by Roman Griffin Davis. Jojo is idealistic and a Nazi fanatic. His imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler himself, played with such delicious self-awareness by Taika Waititi, who tries to push him harder into the Third Reich.
As much as Jojo wants to be a good young Nazi, his world is surrounded by various characters of such interesting complexity; from his commanding officer Captain Klenzendorf (played by Sam Rockwell), his “second best friend” Yorki, played by the adorable Archie Yates, his mother, played by a vibrant Scarlett Johansson, and the young Jewish girl who is hiding in his dead sister’s room, Elsa, played by a captivating Thomasin McKenzie.
Despite its rambunctious comedy that pervades almost every scene, ‘Jojo Rabbit’ remains connected to a powerful beating heart, a humanity that pushes out from the ridiculousness of the Nazi ideology, as Jojo must confront the idea of his mother as being a traitor and discovering more and more about the Jewish girl who he was taught to hate.
What is amazing about Scarlett Johansson’s performance is that she’s a woman who loves her son fiercely but she’s also afraid of him as much as she is afraid for him. She’s not sentimental nor cheesy. She’s strong, made tough by the absence of her husband and weary because of the war, and she’s not afraid to deal with her son as a human being. It is a wonderfully written character that is marvelously portrayed by Johansson and it creates the necessary emotional thread that keeps Jojo from doing what his training has taught him to do: expose the Jewish girl.
What happens is a lovely discovery of a young boy about a world larger than the hate the Nazis have indoctrinated him into.
For all its silliness and magnificent comedic moments (and there’s a lot of it), the real joy of ‘Jojo Rabbit’ comes from tender moments that spring from Jojo and his mother, and Jojo and Elsa. Later, as the war reaches deep into Germany and into Jojo’s town, it changes everyone and Jojo realises exactly what is at stake, and what he has lost and what he can gain in the aftermath.
Great satire can make direct statements against an abstract foe. Taika Waititi’s politics are laid out clear and well-defined in ‘Jojo Rabbit’ but it’s also very enjoyable and with all the laughs as well as the tears (because it is equally effective in wrenching your heart), it manages to find the humanity in each of its characters. In a film that is dead set in showcasing the vile effects of hate, it is rooted in so much love and tenderness that its humanity is what you take with you as you leave the cinema.