“Fuck off, Hitler!” The spirit of Taika Waititi’s satirical comedy is certainly clear in its demands for the monster supreme of national socialism to kindly do one. While the spectre of global fascism seems to once again be rearing its head, Waititi finds a way to turn his unique brand of humour to the denouncement of evil and the celebration of goodness.
As both director and performer, Waititi is on top form, playing a ludicrously comic version of the Führer. Or rather, he’s an imaginary version of Adolf invented by a 10-year-old Hitler Youth recruit Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) as his best friend. Presented from Jojo’s perspective, this Hitler is a friendly chum, supporting Jojo as he navigates the world of junior fascist indoctrination, brought to life by Waititi’s inimitably disarming demeanour.
It’s impossible not to be reminded of the performer’s previous turn as a mild-mannered vampire in What We Do in The Shadows. On first glance, they’re very similar performances, transforming a monster into a cuddly man-child. But like Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (to which this film owes its greatest debt), the ridicule serves a serious point: if you’re going to satirise the most heinous crime in human history, you had better make sure that you hit your mark. Waititi has form for directing children and there’s always been a sort of guileless wonder to his work, yet Jojo Rabbit feels like the first of his films specifically aimed at kids.
Like all great kids’ films, there are two stories going on at the same time – one from Jojo’s perspective, and the other from that of the adults. For adults, the humour of the film’s first act hews close to bad taste, begging the question of whether some things should be off-limits for comedy. Waititi’s vibrant colours, anachronistic pop songs and arch, Wes Anderson-eque framing may seem at odds with the grave historical context, but the point is that we are seeing the world through the eyes of a brainwashed child in thrall to the pageantry and promise of fascist adventure. As his mother, Rosie (a charming-as-usual Scarlett Johansson), says later in the film, the joyful Jojo likes dressing up, but he’s no Nazi.
The other story is the reality of the war, the one where Rosie remarks, “what they could” when asked what a trio of executed resistance fighters did, and where Sam Rockwell’s terrifying-silly Nazi captain steals forbidden glances with another officer while he dreams of glamming up his uniform. After Jojo discovers that his mother has been hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin Mackenzie) in their wall, the direction of travel for the indoctrinated, Jew-hating Jojo is obvious, yet the film’s central message, that hate arrives not as a monster but as your friend, is movingly depicted.
The juxtaposition between Jojo and his adult Nazi counterparts powerfully evokes a process of hate that drives out kindness and compassion and forces us to hide from ourselves. In a system that fetishises death and entropy, celebrating life – even in secret – is the best form of resistance.
The 44th Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 5-15 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell