Pick Of The Week: Jojo Rabbit
From the quirky mind of Taika Waititi comes an original new take on Holocaust humour, the anti-hate satire Jojo Rabbit. Starring Waititi as Hitler, Scarlett Johansson, Roman Griffin Davis, Sam Rockwell and Thomasin McKenzie, the story of a young boy trying to make sense of Nazi fascism with the help of his "imaginary friend" - Adolf Hitler.
Jojo Rabbit is an anti-hate satire adapted from the book 'Caging Skies' written by Christine Leunens in 2004. The book is a period drama based on World War II and follows the story of a ten year old German boy called Johannes Betzler, nicknamed “Jojo” in the film, who is growing up in the Third Reich as an ardent Nazi and recently drafted member of the "Hitlerjugend" (Hitler Youth). The book is about the indoctrination of young boys into Nazism and how Jojo’s world spins when he encounters a young Jewish girl being hidden in their attic by his mother. The film is a slapstick satire at its heart, morphed skilfully from the book into a whimsical and original comedy by writer-director Taika Waititi.
In a candid interview with 92nd Street Y, Waititi mentioned that being partly of Jewish descent, they were always raised to fear the Nazis. The most significant reason behind making this movie a comedy was the fact that he believes, “laughing makes people more receptive; they pay more attention to detail and absorb the authenticity of the narrative”. It is Waititi’s ability to balance unassailable goofy moments with an acknowledgment of real-life horrors that makes the movie exceptional. His adapted film script introduces a unique new character to the fold - Jojo’s secret imaginary friend who just happens to be Adolf Hitler, but a silly, playful and at times capricious version of Hitler played with zeal by Waiti himself. As a director too, he is eccentric and there are zero doubts about it. He would rather “have people walk out in the first two minutes than be tricked into liking the movie halfway through and then leave even angrier". This is why the movie establishes its knife-edged comical exaggeration in the opening credits with the German version of ‘I Want to hold Your Hand’ by The Beatles against vintage footage of Führer-mad Germans cheering and saluting their idol. Jojo Rabbit for the lack of a better phrase is ‘tragically hilarious,’ a tug of war between witticism and pathos, which makes the experience of watching it exhilarating.
Adding to its freshness are the artistic choices made by the filmmaking team. For example, the Director of Photography (DOP) Mihai Mălaimare Jr., drew inspiration not from the black and white images we are used to seeing from this era, but instead from colour footage, which portrayed a surprisingly ‘bright’ image of life during World War II. This choice of highly saturated colours make Jojo Rabbit incongruous to typical comedies of today, which purposely keep their colours flat to draw greater attention to their humour above all other aesthetic concerns. The film was also shot with the Alexa SXT camera and a combination of anamorphic lenses, which perch characters in beautiful bokeh backgrounds and give a profound velvety texture to the skin. Mayes C. Rubeo, the costume designer for Jojo Rabbit, in an interview with Variety, discusses how Hitler’s costume was essentially baggy riding pants to maintain the essence of him being a conjured hologram of Jojo’s imagination; nothing but a child’s fantasy. On the other hand Scarlett Johansson, who plays Rosie (Jojo’s mother), likes going out and socialising. Hence, her costumes had to be chic.
The unnerving verisimilitude of draconian-Hitler-bred Germany reaches us from a source least expected - from New Zealand born Waititi better known for Sunday afternoon blockbusters like Thor: Ragnarok. And while his aesthetic choices surely make for a glossy movie, what makes the film a real conversation starter are the nuances he writes in for his characters. Jojo is a propaganda-fed child incapable of tying his own shoe laces let alone filter out the dense network of lies building around him. Unlike his cuddly friend Yorki who doesn’t seem to take matters of ideology to heart (but participates nonetheless), Jojo is a sensitive and conflicted minor torn between living up to the expectations of the Führer, and the lessons from his own life experiences. This film is about war and how children perceive its contradictions. Like many others at the time, Jojo does not know anything about Jews. He readily buys into Elsa’s levity when she says Jews look like bats and have the Devil’s horns, even as he slowly starts disassociating her, the Jewish fugitive hiding in his attic, away from this image. Jojo’s relationship with his mother is filled with love and unusual maturity. Jojo isn’t “tough” and his mother knows it. But his Nazi fixation won’t budge either, which is why she prefers to maintain a neutral ground on the subject. At the same time, she does not shield him from introspection. When they encounter a group of traitors publicly hanged, their lifeless legs dangling, Jojo asks what these people did to deserve such a fate. She replies, “What they could.” It rattles his insides and it is the first time he questions his loyalty. The stellar ensemble cast brings these nuances to life exquisitely, with the young actors - Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo, Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa and Archie Yates as Yorki - brilliantly infusing their performances with equal parts warmth and irreverence.
Waititi is not the first to have ventured into satire, lampooning the Nazis, but has made a commendable contribution to the likes of classics such as ‘The Great Dictator’ starring Charlie Chaplin, Mel Brooks' ‘The Producers,’ or for that matter Roberto Benigni’s Oscar winning production of ‘Life is Beautiful.’ And yet, despite being nominated in six categories and winning the Oscar for best adapted screenplay this year, Holocaust humour is a delicate proposition to take on. More than 9.7 million people lost their lives and countless more are still living the aftermath. Waititi has definitely put political satires back in trend, but there are also parts in the movie that feels like it is infantilising the horrors of the Holocaust as if the audience were children too sensitive to pick up on mentions of genocide. At a time when we are seeing the far right on the rise globally once again, voted into power and within the same century as fascist Nazi Germany, we’re not sure that humanity really deserves the benefit of innocence that Waititi seems to have given us.
Having said that, the only way to truly never forget is to say it over and over and over again, in different formats and with different lenses on. And to that end, given the times we live in today and the film’s UA rating Jojo Rabbit successfully contextualises, for an entirely new generation of audiences, what is possibly the most dehumanising period of human history. Not only is it important for us to know what happened, but also how we let it happen. While fascism can and often does sneak up on just about anyone, if a young, lonely, conflicted little boy can overcome his preconceived notions and make a different choice - and he chooses compassion - so can we today. And that is where the genius of Jojo Rabbit lies.
On its last leg at your nearest theatre, do check out Jojo Rabbit for some insightful laughs.