By Angelo Muredda
“Don’t get into the Nazi stuff,” Taika Waititi’s deadbeat dad tells his son, the eponymous protagonist of the New Zealand-born actor-writer-director’s sophomore feature Boy (2010), gesturing to a swastika he once carved into the wall of his childhood bedroom, the remnant of a reformed punk’s youthful exploits. Hindsight being 20/20, it’s almost as if the recent Marvel laureate is cautioning himself to not glibly trade in fascist iconography if he can help it, but with his admittedly inventive riff on Christine Leunens’ World War II novel Caging Skies, Waititi delivers on his Boy character’s dark prophecy, with predictably dicey results: in Jojo Rabbit, Waititi dives headlong into the Nazi stuff, pulling out an enervating human-interest story with darkly comic beats that have been overstated by the marketing campaign that pitched the film as “an anti-hate satire.” If Jojo Rabbit is a satire at all, as opposed to a lazy fable about letting the boys of the Gestapo be boys (so long as they eventually learn to love their neighbours), it is the rare one lacking in both stinger and target.
Retreading the ground of the much more (appropriately) good-hearted Boy, Waititi again directs as well as co-stars in Jojo, this time as the ultimate bad dad: Adolf Hitler himself, who doubles here as the imaginary friend and cheerleader of our 11-year-old protagonist, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a Hitler Youth member who the film seems to want us to believe harbours the potential for both love and hate, despite all evidence to the contrary. Waititi’s Hitler is first seen coaching his young charge in the rhetoric of the heil, one of the ostensibly edgy but actually callous motifs the film returns to periodically to chart Jojo’s transformation from an unthinking automaton into a real person, a sentimental journey that sees him yanked between two poles: the one represented by his obviously bad surrogate father, the other by his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), a Resistance ally and consummate ham who gives him a dash of vaudeville humour to balance out the propensity for self-serious kitsch that makes him such an easy Nazi mark. With Mom’s lessons in humility nudging him away from the dark, Jojo begins to contend with the humanity of his imagined enemies, reduced to one handy metonym for all that he hates and all that he might learn to love in Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie), a young Jewish woman and talented illustrator who Rosie has been secretly sheltering in the attic.
While even the most ardent admirers of What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017) would likely be hard-pressed to contend that the good-naturedly goofy Waititi had a genuinely satirical streak to his work, in Jojo Rabbit it is ironically the “anti-hate” part that is ultimately the furthest from his grasp. Despite the world-breaking stakes of the film’s historical framing, Jojo’s noncommittal politics amount to little more than a cheerful centrist talking point about the need to break bread with those on the other side of the aisle, the better to combat false prejudices and assert our common humanity. That asinine message—which is less the stuff of satire than of a trendy young-adult novel that dashes off meaningless bromides about how “As long as there’s someone alive somewhere, then They lose”—is made especially galling by the fact that the other side here are the Nazis, whom Waititi evidently wants us to see and hear ourselves in—not in any genuinely historical, philosophical, or moral way, but strictly in the way that Nazism itself has been subsumed into popular culture, which is Jojo Rabbit’s first and final reference point (as evidenced by Waititi’s greatest divide-bridging gesture: the inclusion of German covers of The Beatles and David Bowie on the soundtrack).
That Waititi makes his Hitler a ridiculous, self-enchanted, limb-flailing priss feels like a weakly pre-emptive inoculation against criticism that he’s relativizing the Nazis’ crimes for the purposes of his feel-good fable. If there’s a true avatar for Waititi’s own moral position in the film, it’s Jojo’s friend Yorki (Archie Yates), a cheerful child who isn’t much bothered by anything: not the farcical displays of masculinity called for by the Hitler Youth camp (which are depicted here as a mildly more demonic version of the Khaki Scouts’ low-rent theatrics and pyrotechnics in Moonrise Kingdom ), not the war in which he’s been drafted as a soldier despite his tender years and unathletic form, and not the survival of the young woman his friend has been hiding in his attic. “Good for you, Jojo,” he says when Jojo tells him that he is starting to think of Elsa as his girlfriend, later adding, with a disinterested shrug, that since the war is over Jojo might consider letting Elsa know, since she is now more captive than house guest.
Yates is a gifted comic performer, but Waititi’s insistence on playing Yorki as both a sage little boy growing up in a dark time and a slick collaborator who can survive any moral situation he’s thrown into feels representative of the worminess of his own project, which slaps smiles on ugly feelings. Nowhere, though, is the film’s vacuousness more pronounced than in its celebration of our protagonist’s reverse heel turn, as Waititi barrels toward a sunny finale despite all the signs that Jojo doesn’t deserve it. When Elsa, in an early scene, slams the diminutive Jojo into a wall and declares that she’d be doing the world a favour by cutting off his “Nazi head,” her fully justified sentiment seems to disturb rather than interest Waititi, as he later has Elsa inform Jojo that, thank goodness, he isn’t a Nazi, not really: just a confused boy with a taste for swastikas and authoritarianism.
This is cynical stuff, more anti-reality than anti-hate: childhood innocence, callowness, and vulnerability (much is made of Jojo’s anxieties about a mild facial deformity, which runs through his Aryan looks like a fault line) proffered as an excuse for a genocidal ideology. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Waititi confessed that he had never seen films about war “where it was told really through a child’s lens.” Even if one could forgive him for not bothering to take a look at the readily available likes of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood or Elem Klimov’s Come and See, the assumption that viewing Nazism through a child’s lens inherently yields a fresh perspective on the innate humanity of its worst practitioners, and that of the young people they brainwashed, is naive at best. Exploiting our goodwill towards the supposed innocence of children, Waititi asks us to invest in the queasy romantic drama of a boy who, only an hour before the film’s teary-eyed conclusion, was drafting a concordance of the monstrous features of his Jewish neighbours, so as to more easily recognize them. Better, perhaps, to have done the world a favour, as Elsa intended.