A comedy about a young boy in the Nazi youth, who daydreams of Hitler as his best friend, in the final days of Nazi rule is a bizarre premise. Add a plot on top of that already weird setup in which his mother turns out to be a resistance operative housing a young Jewish girl in the crawl space of their house, a mother who gets caught and summarily hanged halfway through the film, and it just shouldn't work. To call Jojo Rabbit black humour isn't quite going far enough! Yet, a little like The Death of Stalin, that dark comedic slant allows for a surprisingly nuanced perspective on one of the bleakest moments in European history.
Yes, there's slapstick Hitler jokes, absurd characters, and physics-defying explosions, but at its heart Jojo Rabbit is a fascinating dissection of nationalist politics, the effect of propaganda (particular on young people), and the overly simplified narrative of good versus evil that we so often turn to as a species. It's a film which goes out of its way to highlight the absurdities at the core of Nazi ideology, to shine a light on the immorality at work in 1940s Germany, and yet still manages to portray several genuinely sympathetic characters who are paid-up members of the Nazi party. Most notably, you have the flamboyantly camp Nazi Youth officers played by Sam Rockwell and Alfie Allen. These are serving officers in the Nazi army, who spend their days designing and distributing propaganda and overseeing Hitler Youth activities which include all manner of psychological and physical abuse to craft trained, brainwashed soldiers for the frontlines. Yet, at the same time they show an extraordinary amount of empathy towards young Jojo, actively help him cover-up Elsa's identity, have an entire subplot about creating the most amazingly over-the-top besequined, befeathered, bright pink army uniform, and then help Jojo escape the Allied firing squads when the town is "liberated".
And, I mean, that entire final scene for Rockwell's character is extremely poignant. These are men and women who are following inconsequential orders miles away from the atrocities so commonly associated with Nazi Germany, utterly unaware of what their government is doing, and largely unsupportive of even the small things that are going on under their nose. Yet there is no trial for them: they are rounded up and executed, without explanation or consideration, by the "good guys".
Which isn't to say that Jojo Rabbit in any way makes out the Nazis to be victims. I know a lot of words were written around the build-up to the film's release as to whether Nazi Germany, and specifically Hitler, should ever be caricatured and made into a comic character. Does it downplay the atrocious reality of World War Two and paint the monsters behind it in a more favourable light? No. As I've said, the film's message is highlighting everything wrong with fascism, nationalism, and the Nazi ideology, but it doesn't always do so in overt forms. Obviously, you have the central plot revolving around this young Jewish girl, terrified for her life and hardened by her fear, and a young Hitler Youth member who has fallen hook, line and sinker for his country's propaganda: there's little nuance involved here. You see the terrible toll the war has taken on Elsa, the privilege that Jojo wields without understanding, and the step-by-step erosion of his utter faith in a racist, hateful ideology when confronted with the actual realities that have been hidden from him.
But Jojo Rabbit is also subtle about its undermining of these awful concepts. The way they never show Jojo's mother's face on the stocks is evocative of the erasure these people went through under the Nazi regime, a particularly poignant end to a character so vividly played by Scarlet Johannsen and so previously full of life, character, and charm. Or the scene in which Jojo is emotionally tortured by the older kids at the Youth Camp, driven to an act of utter desperation that sees him almost killed, driving home that monsters are often made rather than simply born. But most of all, the way the seemingly comic relationship between Jojo and the imaginary, invisible Hitler he sees breaks down and morphs as the child's own understanding of the War and the realities of the world around him begin to crystallise, it's brilliantly done. Hitler goes from a caring, benevolent friend to a deeply manipulative, paranoid, destructive influence on Jojo, driving him to actions he is clearly unsure about through fear, and later twisting into an incredibly unsettling character as Jojo begins to push back against the lies he has been fed. Taiko Waititi is brilliant in the role, which plays such a subtle part in the overall meta-narrative. Could the film work without making "light of Hitler"? Possibly, but it wouldn't work anywhere near as well, nor make its point as cleverly, without that device.
In other words, I'm a big fan of this film. It's perfectly cast, crafted, and executed, with an excellent (and timely *cough USA cough*) message about the insidiousness of nationalism as a tool. The main plot is not exactly original or even exceptional in its framing, but all of the stuff around the edges create a whole far greater than the sum of its parts on paper. I can't recommend it enough.