There’s a moment in Jojo Rabbit where our titular character forgets his fanaticism and devotion to Hitler and Nazi Germany and embraces his childhood innocence. We watch as the wide eyed wonderment of a child enjoying the present washes over him, only to be snatched away horrifyingly. It’s a moment and image that made me question whether I wanted to see this movie again (I will), and if I could sit through that instant of heartbreak once more. It also made me realize that Taika Waititi has become the master of his craft and Jojo Rabbit is indeed his masterpiece.
It’s the dying days of the war. The allies are closing in, Nazi Germany is all but on its arse and things are looking pretty dire. But, the fascist shit show must continue. Young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is an all too eager disciple of the Fuhrer, so much so that the film opens with him gleefully skipping through the streets Hail Hitler-ing his fellow townspeople to the backing tune of a German rendition of The Beatles’ I Want To Hold Your Hand. Our young Nazi wannabe is quite the fanatic but has yet to completely do away with his humanity. His mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), seeing Hitler and Germany’s place in it for what they truly are, does everything she can to keep the dim light of innocence alive in Jojo, but young hatred is a potent and beastly thing to keep at bay. Following a grenade mishap at a Nazi youth camp, Jojo is forced into recuperation with his whimsical mother and put on menial duties. While at home, he discovers a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in the walls of their family home, forcing the young Nazi devotee into an ideological tailspin.
Jojo Rabbit is Taika Waititi at his most gloves off. He’s no stranger to challenging his audience, either through his humour, or themes that show up repeatedly throughout his previous work. But here, Waititi pushes headlong into the horrors and hatred of World War Two, but never retreating from the moments of humour and absurdity that make him so compelling as a filmmaker in the first place. While some might be nervous at the prospect of a Waititi film set during WW2, told from the point of view of a Nazi wannabe, the balance between light and dark, laughter and sadness, joy and heartbreak is handled so impeccably, one has to marvel at Waititi’s core strength.
Waititi continues to shine in the casting of young actors. As Jojo, Davis has the uneviable task of trying to make the young Nazi upstart likeable, and he does so through a wondrous performance in which he attempts to dig deep into a well of internal hatred, only to be betrayed by the innocence and reluctance to harm in his eyes. Thomasin McKenzie, too, is a revelation, at first leaning into the myths and stories the Nazis told about Jews in order to fuel fear and hatred in the people. Over the course of the film the layers of bravado and hostility are swept away, uncovering a young girl forced to face horrors no one ever should. As she reveals just a little more about her past life to Jojo, your heart continues to break and fracture for her.
It’s Johansson who damn near steals this film away. As Rosie, she brings a light and warmth desperately needed in a story of this type. A mother attempting to pull her son away from the edge of all out hatred, trying to shield him from the darkness of the world around, but also instilling a sense of resilience and resistance in him in the face of murderous authoritarianism all at the same time, you’ll quickly realize that she is an actress who, lately, has been disgustingly under utilised. Waititi gives her the ability to sink her teeth into her character, and the film is all the better for it.
It’s true. Jojo Rabbit is an important film, not just in its message of anti hatred. But it’s important to remember the light, joy and laughter life can bring. Things seem dark. Things are dark. But that doesn’t mean the laughter and the embracement of life’s wonderful absurdities have to stop. It’s okay to find the levity in the dark. Sometimes it’s as simple as dancing in the street.