Review: Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Directed by: Taika Waititi | 108 minutes | comedy, drama | Actors: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, Archie Yates, Luke Brandon Field, Sam Haygarth, Stanislav Callas

Charlie Chaplin did it even before World War II had the world in its grip: ridiculing Adolf Hitler and his fascist ideology. At a time when much of the world was still ignorant and had no idea what the Nazis were capable of, he warned with his satirical masterpiece ‘The Great Dictator’ (1940) about the dangers of fascism and the blind following of a populist and his extreme ideas. Chaplin was way ahead of its time with this daring film, but ‘The Great Dictator’ turned out to be surprisingly timeless. Although in principle any subject should lend itself to satire, things are sometimes too sensitive. If you want to come up with a satirical film, the humor has to be presented tastefully, otherwise you will upset your audience. Eighty years after the outbreak of the Second World War, the subject is more sensitive to some people than others, but there is enough room for filmmakers to address the subject in a satirical way. Quentin Tarantino, for example, already did; with ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009) he took revenge on behalf of the Jews and rewrote world history in the process. In 2015, filmmaker David Wnendt came from Germany itself with the mockumentary ‘Er ist wieder da’, in which Hitler awakens in contemporary Germany and develops into a media figure. Filmmaker Taika Waititi (‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’, 2016) was inspired by the novel ‘Caging Skies’ by Belgian/American/New Zealand writer Christine Leunens for his WWII comedy ‘Jojo Rabbit’ (2019).

Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old boy who grew up in Nazi Germany. His father fights at the front in Italy and because he still needs fatherly advice, he has created an imaginary friend: none other than Adolf Hitler himself (Taika Waititi). Jojo likes nothing more than to walk around in his uniform all day long and a long-cherished dream is fulfilled when the day comes when he can report to the training camp of the Hitler Youth. The camp is led by the disgraced, relegated Captain Klassendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his aides Finkel (Alfie Allen) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). On his first day Jojo immediately discovers that there is not exactly a bloodthirsty Nazi in him, because when he is asked to kill an innocent bunny he drops out and then when he wants to prove that he is suitable he blows himself up with a hand grenade. After his recovery, an indecent job as a postman awaits him at the office of the Hitlerjugend in his hometown. His mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) secretly doesn’t mind that her son has been ‘failed’. The war may be over for her as soon as possible. Then Jojo discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their house. Initially he doesn’t like this Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), because he has always been taught that Jews are evil. But he slowly thaws, especially when she teaches him that there is more to life than blind patriotism, such as art, literature and the power of love.

Initially, in ‘Jojo Rabbit’ the emphasis is on humor – often of the frantic kind; at the Hitlerjugend camp, Waititi and his actors go wild with jokes and pranks. If you are sensitive to jokes about WWII, then you will probably fall mainly over this. Some finds are hilarious, others are completely out of the picture. Incidentally, that applies to the entire film. The contributions of Sam Rockwell are certainly worthwhile; where his character initially seems quite stereotypical, it later turns out that there is more to him than you would suspect at first glance. Rebel Wilson, on the other hand, does not get any further than a caricature and her jokes also completely miss the point. Waititi himself pops up all the time as an ‘imaginary friend’ in the guise of Hitler, which doesn’t always work out well either. The idea is nice, but the execution leaves something to be desired. The film changes tone when Jojo (actually well played by the young Roman Griffin Davis who, unlike the actor who plays his boyfriend Yorki, has a natural way of acting) discovers the girl Elsa. Here we see clearly how the indoctrination of children works, and how it can be broken down again. By nature, children don’t judge; it is the rules, laws and patterns imposed on them by adults that determine how they see the world around them. Nice to see how the walls are slowly but surely crumbling and the children learn to trust each other. In this second half, the humor is second to none – only Stephen Merchant as a Herr Flick (‘Allo ‘Allo’) based Gestapo officer sows the necessary hilarious unrest – and Waititi gives way to the drama with some nice , penetrating scenes in which Scarlett Johansson plays the lead role as mother Rosie. Because despite those vagueness in the beginning, Waititi really knows how to move us.

It seems as if Waititi has glued two completely different films together with ‘Jojo Rabbit’; on the one hand the lame comedy in which he ridicules Hitler and his reprehensible ideology with jokes that are not always successful, on the other hand the much more sensitive friendship that develops between a boy who knows no better than that the Nazi ideology is the only correct one and a young Jewish girl who is forced to go into hiding in his house. It doesn’t exactly balance ‘Jojo Rabbit’, but Waititi (who has a Jewish mother herself) made the film with the best of intentions and is lucky enough to work with an excellent cast. Their German accents are far from spot on, but with people like Rockwell and Johansson on board, the acting soon becomes a must. Speaking of mustache; Waititi’s own contribution may be an eye-catching gimmick, but it could also have been left out.

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