Taika Waititi bears the burden well, but it can’t be easy being the funniest man in the world. The New Zealander has risen through Eagle Vs Shark, Boy and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople as the great white hope-shark of comedy as we move into the 2020’s; he writes, he directs, he performs and his work is suffused with worldly humour; ‘We are like sheep trapped in a maze designed by wolves,’ is how the minister explains life to a boy in Wilderpeople, and Waititi’s ability to carve comedy out of real tragedy is what marks him out as a special talent.
Based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, JoJo Rabbit sees Waititi travel down a familiar yet treacherous route; poking fun at Hitler, Nazi Germany and, by association, the Holocaust. It worked for Chaplin, Mel Brooks and Roberto Benigni, less so for Jerry Lewis; Waititi plays Hitler, springing through the air, mimicking the gestures of the 20th century’s most notable failure of humanity. But there’s no better target for humour that the Nazi party; it just raises the bar for getting the jokes right. Waititi does go for slapstick, but he undercuts it with bitter-sweet pathos; a child follows a butterfly to a gallows in one of the film’s most striking sequences.
Otherwise, like Judith Kerr’s book When Hitler Stoke Pink Rabbit, this is a helpful way of getting young people up to speed on one of history’s darkest periods. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) suffer from an absent father-figure, and the boy has an imaginary friend in Hitler. A trip to a Hitler Youth camp results in the boy being blown-up by a grenade, which leaves him with scars. Stuck at home, Jojo begins a friendship with a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie) who Rosie has agreed to hide from the authorities.
There’s echoes of The Tin Drum here, and even David Bowie’s turn in Just a Gigolo; Nazis are played for laughs, with Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant all contributing comic turns, and yet all have more depth than might initially be expected. The specific target here is not so much Hitler, but those who chose to follow him, and why.
Jojo Rabbit will divide critics and audiences, even as it picks up awards nominations. For some, the subject matter cannot be laughed about, even if the film’s heart seems to be in the right place. Waititi takes a traditional mentor trope and turns it on its head here; what if you choose the wrong heroes to follow? There will be many who will scurry back to such fantasies as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, or prefer for reasons of taste the public hand-wringing that David Mamet described as ‘Mandingo for Jews’. Everyone has the right to grieve in his or her own way.
But like it or hate it, and whether you think it’s funny or not, Jojo Rabbit is an essential and important film for 2020; the rise of despotism and the one-man-state was, until recently, thought inconceivable in the West, and right now, the threat is sudden and real, and whatever lessons we learned in 1945 will have to be remembered and heeded again. Jojo Rabbit is a comedy with a point, and Waititi’s timing is right on the money.