Since the days of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, film-makers have adopted naive or comedic perspectives to pierce and deflate the hideous bubble of Nazi ideology – a risky strategy that can reap rich rewards. In the 1967 classic The Producers, Mel Brooks made comedy gold from the spectre of a terrible play celebrating Hitler’s little-known dance skills. The film won a best screenplay Oscar and spawned a hit stage musical that in turn produced another star-studded screen adaptation. In 1999, Roberto Benigni’s “comedy drama” Life Is Beautiful won three Oscars with its depiction of a man whose comic clowning keeps the horrors of a concentration camp from his son – a premise weirdly reminiscent of Jerry Lewis’s ill-judged The Day the Clown Cried, which was effectively banned by its creator, becoming the subject of ignominious legend.
Now, in this Golden Globe-nominated adaptation of Christine Leunens’s book Caging Skies, New Zealand writer-director-performer Taika Waititi plays a camp, slapstick version of Hitler, who exists in the mind of a German boy, Jojo. Roman Griffin Davis plays the 10-year-old growing up under the Third Reich, whose jolly dreams of becoming an Aryan war hero are thwarted by his innate sensitivity and squeamishness. Nicknamed Jojo Rabbit after failing to strangle a bunny when ordered to do so at a Nazi youth training camp, our antihero promptly blows himself up with a hand grenade, rendering him unfit for future combat. Instead, he’s assigned more menial tasks, including handing out recruitment leaflets, spurred on by visions of his imaginary Führer friend.
Beneath the fanaticism, Jojo is a frightened boy whose sister has died and whose father has disappeared in battle. But his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), has a secret: she’s a covert anti-fascist who is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Leave No Trace star Thomasin McKenzie), in the attic. When Jojo stumbles upon Elsa, he is initially horrified, believing her to be a monster. But gradually the pair strike up a love-hate relationship that infuriates Imaginary Adolf and causes Jojo to start to rethink his allegiances.
From early scenes audaciously intercutting Triumph of the Will footage with the German Beatlemania sounds of Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand (other playfully anachronistic pop tunes include Tom Waits’s I Don’t Wanna Grow Up and David Bowie’s Helden), to later interludes in which Imaginary Adolf acts more like a petulant schoolboy than a murderous dictator, Waititi strives to capture young Jojo’s wide-eyed point of view. There’s a distant echo here of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, another 12-certificate film that looked at the horrors of nazism from the perspective of children. But Mark Herman’s adaptation of John Boyne’s novel had an altogether clearer agenda, leaving the audience in no doubt as to the purpose of the drama.
In a podcast interview that I recorded with Waititi toward the end of 2018, he described Jojo Rabbit (which he was then editing) as a “strange art comedy” that ventured into “dangerous waters”. He also commented that my facial expression while he was describing his forthcoming movie was “kind of confusion, and sort of fear, disgust and doubt; a lot of doubt – which is probably the expression that I have on my face when I talk about it…”
That sense of doubt was not dispelled by the finished film, which, although clearly sincere in its intentions, is neither sharp nor funny enough to cut to the heart of its subject matter. Whereas Waititi’s 2016 gem Hunt for the Wilderpeople transformed Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress into a note-perfect blend of screen comedy, tragedy and pathos, Jojo Rabbit struggles to achieve the same seamless intertwining of light and dark. It’s not just that the intended interplay between corruption and innocence fails to hit that sweet spot through which great art can transform unspeakable subject matter into something magically accessible; it’s more that the general tone borders all too often on the bland – a fatal flaw.
There are positives. Sam Rockwell has fun with the role of Captain Klenzendorf, a drunk would-be warrior taken away from the battlefield by the loss of an eye, now apparently resigned to absurd, humiliating defeat; and McKenzie manages to inject a sense of gravitas into the key role of Elsa, even when the script gives her precious little to work with.
I suspect the strangely good-natured feel of the film will win the hearts of many viewers, but my own head remained too muddled by its uneven and oddly indecisive approach to embrace whatever quirky virtues it may possess.
Source: The Guardian