“If you can reduce Hitler to something laughable, you win.”—Mel Brooks.
A great deal of the credit for this film goes to author Christine Leunens, whose disquieting 2004 novel, Caging Skies, was the basis and inspiration for Jojo Rabbit. Leunens’ novel portrays a German town under the Nazis, toward the end of WWII, entirely through the eyes of a teenaged boy, Johannes.
Devoted to Nazi ideology and an avid member of the Hitler Youth, Johannes is shocked to discover that his parents have hidden a Jewish girl in their attic. At first, horrified at having a member of the despised race in his home, he becomes increasingly fascinated by the girl, Elsa, and finally infatuated with her. In Leunens’ novel, they develop a strange, evolving, mutually destructive relationship as the threat of discovery hangs over their heads. It is a distinctly personal view of life under the Third Reich, and while it contains some sharp, ironic humour, it is not a comedy. Despite the drastic changes, Leunens approved the film adaptation wholeheartedly.
Director Taika Waititi begins with the essence of Leunens’ story, alters key details, and takes it in a completely different direction. The tone of the story is changed most drastically by the decision to make the central character younger: Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis in his acting debut) is changed from an adolescent to a boy of ten, who lives with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) in a fictional German town while his father is away at war. As a result, his enthusiasm for Nazi teachings comes across as childish gullibility and his admiration of Hitler as youthful hero-worship.
In Waititi’s hands, even Johannes’ loathing of Jews becomes a kind of boyish fantasy of barely-real villains. The film’s actual Nazis and real Nazi ideology are genuine and dangerous, but they do not have a fatal impact on Johannes’ innocence. Waititi’s screenplay is emphatically from Johannes’ point of view, so that even the most ghastly aspects of Nazi thought or procedure are shown through the filter of Johannes’ naive admiration. Care is taken by the director, working with a carefully chosen, award-winning film crew, to make the surroundings bright, colourful, and pleasing, rather than the common drab images of wartime Germany, in order to create the world as young Johannes would have seen it. Small towns in the Czech Republic were chosen for the film site, because of their storybook appearance and the presence of intact pre-war buildings. Even the soundtrack provides a youthful feeling, beginning with the whimsical choice of The Beatles’ German-language version of I Want To Hold Your Hand during the opening credits.
The most striking part of the reimagined story is the choice to expand the character of Hitler himself – or rather, a fantasy image of Hitler. In Leunens’ novel, teenaged Johannes sees Hitler as a distant authority figure; he occasionally gazes at Hitler’s photograph, wondering whether the revered Feuhrer would approve of his actions. Jojo Rabbit takes this connection to Hitler much further. The film’s Johannes is still young enough to have an imaginary friend, which is his own conception of Adolf Hitler. The boy’s fantasy Hitler, played by the director, is an indescribably absurd combination of sprightly imaginary playmate and brutal fascist dictator. Waititi walks a fine line between satire and absurdity as the little boy’s fantasy Fuehrer encourages him in his Hitler Youth-inspired efforts to be tough and ruthless – which Johannes clearly is not; offers him juvenile versions of Nazi ideology; and romps childishly with him, incongruously boyish and carefree in Johannes’ more lighthearted moments.
Waititi performs a demented balancing act between dark satire and broad, gleeful comedy, accomplished by keeping Johannes and his perspective central. The boy is proud and happy to finally join the Hitler Youth, innocently impressed by their ritualised brutality, while the audience can see beyond his youthful delight at being given access to adult concerns (his mother wisely recognises that he simply “wants to be part of a club”) to the darkness of what he is being taught and initiated into. “That’s how the Nazis indoctrinated kids,” Waititi commented in an interview during the TIFF screening, “by making them feel part of this really cool gang.” Johannes endears himself to the audience by failing to live up to the group’s standards; he earns the jeering nickname Jojo Rabbit when he is unable to wring the neck of a rabbit on command. The film cheerfully mocks the Nazis’ hyper-masculinity, casual violence, and demonisation of non-Germans, mostly by the simple device of having their ideas presented with perfect candour. The satire is aided by well chosen cast members: Sam Rockwell gives a gonzo humour to the role of Hitler Youth leader Captain Klezendorf; secretly gay, injured in battle, and ingloriously demoted, he is jaded and cynical enough to allow an informative touch of sarcasm into his instruction. Rebel Wilson is hilarious as the girls’ instructor, Fraulein Rahm, a dim-witted Nazi true believer who obligingly sees Jews grow horns and Slavs commit cannibalism. In some ways, this broad, purposely silly parody reveals the evil nature of Nazi bigotry and fanaticism as clearly as a more serious critique might – which was exactly Waititi’s intention.
When Johannes, at first suspecting the presence of a ghost, makes the startling discovery of Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), the 17-year-old Jewish girl his mother has hidden in his home, the story takes a new direction. Johannes, faced with a member of the despised and feared enemy of Germany, feels he is facing a genuine challenge to his patriotism. He is also torn by his loyalty to his own mother, whom he realises is responsible for taking in the refugee; Scarlett Johansson’s Rosie, confident and optimistic, provides an ongoing source of kindness and reason in the face of political madness throughout the film, and balances the negative influences in Johannes’ life. Once again taking a lighter, more humorous approach than the original novel, the film has Johannes’ attempt to apprehend the refugee quickly foiled by the older and more confident girl. They reach a stalemate, leaving Johannes at once alarmed and fascinated by the mysterious refugee. Using the pretext of researching the Jewish menace, he talks daily to the girl, slowly coming to accept her as a person rather than a monster, and developing a boyish crush on her, despite the frantic disapproval of his imaginary friend. It was the friendship between Elsa and Johannes that the director zeroed in on as central to the film, the oddity of friendship “between two people who are, in their minds, total enemies,” he commented; “I like the dynamic where, contrary to what Jojo expects, Elsa holds most of the cards and calls the shots. But also, they are in a Catch-22 that binds them together because both face terrible stakes if their secret gets out.”
The second half of the film allows the comedy to give way to a more serious tone. Waititi acknowledged that this was by design, saying in and interview that comedy is a way to “make an audience more comfortable” with the portrayal of bigotry and brutality. “When something seems a little too easy,” he explains, “I like to bring in chaos….in Jojo Rabbit, I bring the audience in with laughter, and once they’ve dropped their guard, then start delivering these little payloads of drama that have serious weight to them.” Christine Leunens commented, “In Taika’s films, laughs are never free. There are strings attached…It’s after the laugh that the strings start to be felt, drawing one’s consciousness to things that aren’t quite right…amongst these, the realisation of the absurdity of the situation, and the tragedy and pain.” The approach is, in fact, very effective, easing the audience into more serious material – although comedic elements continue – as the real-life effects of Nazism begin to hit home with Johannes, bringing real tragedy into his life, and the war winds to a chaotic conclusion.
Waititi does not find the message of Jojo Rabbit out of date. “Around the time we were going into production, we started seeing more and more resurgence of this way of thinking,” he recalls, “and it became even more urgent to tell the story.” Is comedy the best approach to such subject matter? It has certainly been used effectively before, by resistance workers and journalists during the actual war, as well as by comedians from Charlie Chaplin to Roberto Benigni to Mel Brooks. The film is also, Waititi says, “a reminder that Hitler was really recent in terms of human history, and we’ve got to keep talking about it, because the dynamics that caused it aren’t going away.”