Movie review: Jojo Rabbit

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

If there is one topic that is guaranteed, in something approaching land speed records, to set the ideological cat among the pigeons, it is anything to do with the Nazi era in Germany.

It’s hardly surprising – in 12 years horrifically destructive years the Nazis led by Adolf Hitler enacted wholesale death and destruction right across Europe, sending 6 million Jews and countless millions more Romani, gays and any other groups not deemed to be sufficiently Aryan to their deaths and ensuring that the party and Hitler specifically became a byword for a host of oppressively cruel and evil practices.

So why would anyone want to make a movie in which a young German boy’s imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler? Surely that’s just asking for trouble?

It would be for most people but then New Zealander Taiki Waititi is not most people, and the film he wrote and directed Jojo Rabbit is proof positive that it is possible to push the envelope on this most sensitive of topics and bring people happily laughing all the way, along with you.

The key is, of course, that Jojo Rabbit is an accomplished, sophisticated and immensely clever parody of fascism, indeed any and all variants of extremism (all of which take themselves all too seriously), and if not for the massive destruction they leave in their wake, would be a perpetual laughing stock.

Recognising this, Waititi quite simply and with a deft hand that speaks of an ability to be both simultaneously silly and incisively cutting, lets fascism hang itself on its own petard by letting its vicious absurdities self-sabotagingly consume and themselves over the course of 108 very entertaining minutes.

He quite rightly asserts that behind all the bluster, the propaganda and the slogans, there lies a bizarrely-constructed house of cards that subjected to reason, the cold light of day and humanity comes crumbling down in no time flat.

For all his bravery in tackling such contentious matter and his willingness to make merry with the considerable chinks in fascism’s more bark than bite armoury, Waititi is not glib about the effect this pernicious belief had on the people of Germany nor the many victims it captured in its deathly traps.

While he has his fun, and it is considerable, he also injects a huge amount of emotional resonance into proceedings, making it abundantly clear that while German fascism of the time might have been a beast ready to tear itself apart with its own internal inconsistencies (which its adherents couldn’t see or chose not to see), it caused horrific harm during the period it was embedded into the political and social heart of the German nation.

In other words, while there are oneliners and quip flying at a furiously hilarious pace, chief among them those assigned to Waititi himself as Johannes “Jojo Rabbit” Betzler’s (Roman Griffin Davis), his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) and disaffected head of the local Hitler Youth Camp, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), not for a second are we allowed to forget how much irreparable cataclysmic damage was done to people’s lives at the hands of people who might have been comical monsters but who were, for all intents and purposes, still monsters.

Waititi adroitly treads the line between make a deserved mockery of the Nazis and the cruel absurdity of their beliefs and practises while never once diminishing the existential and literal threat they posed on all sorts of levels.

Terrible things happen to Jojo Rabbit and his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), Jojo’s bestie Yorki and the young Jewish girl Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie) who Rosie is sheltering in a hidden section of an upstairs room (and a whole host of other people), and we are never allowed to lose sight of that in amongst all the sight gags and verbal hijinks.

That may seem as something that should happen regardless but all too often in poorly-executed parodies, the joke overwhelms the message at hand and the whole intent of the film is lost.

That never happens with Jojo Rabbit which not only stays firmly and decisively and affectingly on message, but which demonstrates a considerable amount of heart as we witness Jojo’s journey from Nazi fanatic who sees attendance at an all-weekend Hitler Youth Camp event as “the best weekend ever” and who seeks counsel from his imaginary friend Hitler to someone who forms a deep and enduring sibling bond with Elsa, such that he takes action to safeguard and protect that he would never have contemplated at the movie’s start.

It’s a profoundly moving journey and you would have to have a heart of bunker-strength concrete not to be touched to the core of your being by the heartfelt relationship that exists between Jojo and Elsa by the end of Jojo Rabbit.

This transformation is fundamental to why this film works as brilliantly well as it does because it speaks to the power of love, humanity and connection over dogma, orthodoxy and rote belief, crucially in a way that is never even remotely twee but muscular and real in ways that match the gravity of the horrors that also unfold throughout the story.

Real love and connection has never borne any real similarity to the Disney or Hallmark variants, affecting and delightful though they may be, and Waititi makes a powerfully persuasive point for combating hatred and violence of any kind but especially that birthed in extremist situations, with the kind of transparent, rich and deep relationships in which the horrific side of humanity can never find an enduring foothold.

It might seem insufficient to the threat at hand but for Jojo it is massively transformative, a change that seems him emerge as a changed boy with wholly different priorities by war’s end (you cannot help but be moved), a war he finally realises is the result of cruel, misguided and blinked idiocy of the most abased and nightmarish of kinds.

Jojo Rabbit is immensely clever, hilariously funny, heartfelt and profoundly moving, a film that brilliantly parodies extremists of every stripe simply by letting the absurdity of their hateful obsessions play out to their inevitable destructive ends while allowing the raw, affecting humanity of those who oppose it to makes its way, as it always will, to the redemptive fore.

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