One of the more surprising movies to be nominated for best picture this year, is Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. The movie, an entertaining comedy which is paradoxically set in Nazi Germany, follows a young boy who has been indoctrinated by the reich. Despite his nationalistic fervor, the boy is ridiculed by his peers for his small stature and percieved softness, earning himself the nickname Jojo Rabbit. Waititi satirizes the masculine ideals and aesthetics of Nazism using Jojo’s coming of age story, one which has some clear parallels to modern ideas of masculinity and nationalism.
One of Waititi’s favorite tools for his satire is the use of imagery intended for shock value and surprise. Jojo frequently talks to his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, who is depicted as silly and over the top. Imaginary Hitler is not the only Nazi depicted as a strange and comedic caricature. Nearly every Nazi officer is treated the same, appearing stupid and easily manipulated. This is the result of an unfortunate trend in comedies and dramas set during World War II, which simplify Nazis until they become a cartoonish evil rather than the very real threat they actually are. Jojo Rabbit is participatory in this trend to the extreme, to the point that even the very tragic events which take place in the film are almost completely off screen. The lovably insane cast of characters which Jojo Rabbit interacts with seem completely divorced from the pain he experiences and it is hard to picture them performing the terrible acts (which they certainly are responsible for). Perhaps Waititi intended this intentionally, so as to appeal to the subjectivity of Jojo’s perspective. A child like Jojo might see these characters as comically silly or sinister, especially one so insulated from the realities of the war. Despite this possibility, there still seems to be an uncrossable divide between what is shown in the film and what we know about the reality of the war. Nazi Germany is ultimately just the setting for Waititi’s storytelling ambitions, and lends little more than a convenient moral weight to the events of the film.
Jojo Rabbit is certainly not the first comedy to deal with World War II and the Nazis. One of the less remembered examples of World War II comedy is To Be or Not to Be (1943) directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The film takes place in occupied Poland, where a theater troupe must come together to outsmart the Gestapo and save the lives of resistance fighters. Like Jojo Rabbit, most of the Nazis in this film are comically inept, often being easily outsmarted by the protagonists. Despite this shortcoming, the film never ignores the reality of its setting. The triumphs over Nazis in To Be or Not to Be are part of a larger portrait of resistance and art’s role in the resistance. This is never clearer than when the acting troupe’s own satire on Nazis is censored To Be or Not to Be acknowledges the type of struggle that resistance fighters had to maintain while still maintaining an intricate Shakespearian web of confusion which forms the basis of its funniest moments. Although some of the humor is dated, To Be or Not to Be still stands as one of the shining examples of comedy set in World War II.
Despite its obvious flaws, Jojo Rabbit has many redeeming features. Great performances from Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie form the basis of a touching relationship between Jojo and Elsa, a jewish girl he finds living in his wall. The growth of their friendship is intended to show Jojo’s realization that his hatred has been unfounded, and forms the basis of Jojo’s main transformation. The idea that childhood innocence can overcome hate is noble, but in the end, this theme isn’t interesting enough to carry the rest of the movie. This forms the basis of the other major flaw with Jojo Rabbit: despite its irreverent imagery, the film is surprisingly unoriginal. Many of the jokes about Nazis will look very familiar to those who have seen movies such as To Be or Not to Be or The Producers (either version). The themes of loss of innocence and coming of age feel rehashed from movies such as Life is Beautiful (1997) or even The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008). Rather than building on these titles and overcoming their flaws, Jojo Rabbit has many of the same failings without any great novelty.