Jojo Rabbit Film Review — Can Hitler be funny?

Jojo Rabbit Film Review Can Hitler be funny?

Words: Jo Elliott

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Cast: Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin Mackenzie, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson

Director: Taika Waititi

Warning: Contains spoilers

A satire about the Nazis, despite the fact that it has been done many times before, is bound to be divisive, especially given the current world political situation. However Jojo Rabbit’s issue is not the fact that it finds humour in dark places, it is more that, for a satire, the humour is incredibly lacking.

Sure, the Nazis are portrayed as farcical and idiotic but the humour never quite lands in the way that it intends to. The film is stronger when it leans more into its serious, dramatic moments than when it tries to be comedic. This is especially true in the last thirty to forty moments of the film.

The use of music in the film particularly struck me, especially during the opening sequences as a German version of The Beatles’ I Want To Hold Your Hand plays over a series of black and white video reels of Nazi rallies. The anachronistic music choices continue through the rest of the film. This is a bold choice, but it definitely works.

This kind of sets the tone for the rest of the film. A pop tune combined with Nazi footage is a pretty good indicator of what’s to come with the rest of Jojo Rabbit — a colourful comedy with an undertone of fascism. This is taken pretty literally in the cinematography as well. The colour palette of the film is incredibly bright and colourful, which contrasts sharply with the hate perpetuated by many of the film’s characters.

A particular favourite moment of mine, both in the direction and the choice of music, is the scene where Jojo first finds Elsa. Waititi frames it like a horror movie scene, with the ominous piano music, the heightened sound effects, the switch between fast and slow motion and extreme close-ups.

It’s done very effectively and is probably one of the best shot scenes in the whole movie. It works really well in the context of the movie. Because of course, for Jojo who is a Nazi fanatic, finding a Jewish girl in his house is the equivalent of a horror movie moment.

The standout star of the movie for me was definitely Thomasin Mackenzie, who plays Elsa, the young Jewish girl who is hiding in Jojo’s loft. Unlike the Nazis, her humour is not of the bumbling idiot variety. She leans into Jojo’s assumptions about Jews, exaggerating them even further.

By doing so, she somewhat acts as a conduit for the audience as she is “in on the joke” with us and realises how ridiculous the beliefs of Nazis are. The film is all the better for her more understated performance, contrasting with the wacky comedy of other characters.

Roman Griffin Davis also turns in a great performance as Jojo Betzler. He really shows the growth of the character through the movie, turning from an indoctrinated little Nazi to a more sympathetic character.

The film does fall into some problematic territory here though. Much of Jojo’s growth and change comes through his interactions with Elsa. This is an oft-used trope in Holocaust media: where the Nazi falls in love with a Jew and suddenly their whole belief system is changed. They see this particular Jew as human, so why shouldn’t they see other Jews as human too? The onus should not be on the oppressed to change the mind of those oppressing them. There is something profoundly uncomfortable about Elsa being the catalyst for Jojo’s character growth, given their respective positions in society at the time.

The cast is almost entirely non-German which means that some of the accents can be kind of hit and miss. Thomasin Mackenzie, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis (to an extent, his British accent still comes through at times) all do a decent enough job.

However, Taika Waititi and Rebel Wilson definitely don’t sound German. It’s a little distracting when Hitler sounds like a New Zealander! The kid who played Yorkie, Archie Yates, is just British, without any attempt at an accent.

The lack of German actors given the setting and time period of the film seems like an oversight. This is surely not through lack of native talent, rather laziness on the part of the casting directors.

Shoes and feet are something that comes back again and again throughout the film. In the initial opening shot of Jojo, we see him pulling up his socks and preparing for the camp. Our first introduction to Elsa, is through a shot of just her foot. A running joke throughout the film is Jojo’s inability to tie his own shoes.

This comes back to the fore towards the end of the movie, when Jojo discovers his mother has been hanged. The camera never focuses on her face, only on her shoes.

It harks back to an earlier scene in the film, giving a sense of foreshadowing. The scene packs a real emotional punch because we know exactly what has happened to Jojo’s mother, just by a shot of her shoes.

There’s a nice full circle moment at the end of the film, where Jojo ties Elsa’s shoes (his first time being able to). The pair is remarkably similar to his mother’s as well, which adds to the emotion of the moment.

The focus on shoes could be an interesting historical reference. Piles of shoes have become a symbol of the Holocaust memorial, a representation of lives lost. Waititi’s focus on them in this film could possibly be a nod to that, especially given his own Jewish heritage.

Jojo Rabbit is definitely an ambitious film, but it hides somewhat beneath the perspective of the main character. The wacky portrayal of Nazis makes sense given that we see everything through the eyes of a ten year old.

However by doing this, the film never really condones nor condemns the actions of its lead characters. This means that the film is left as much on the fence as me — the viewer watching it.

It is by no means a bad film technically. It’s well shot, decently acted and has a great soundtrack. However, with the two wildly differing tones, it cannot decide what sort of a film it wants to be.

So rather than being a really great comedy/satire or a really great drama, it tackles both and succeeds at neither.

Originally published at https://capechameleon.co.za on February 19, 2020.

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Jo Elliott

Jo Elliott

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