Back in 2016 I stumbled on Hunt for the Wilderpeople on Rotten Tomatoes. It was highly rated, it was foreign, it was a buddy comedy—it all sounded right to me. And it was. In fact, I became evangelical about the film. I started recommending it to people and showing it to anyone I could. It’s easily one of my favorite movies.
So I was excited and curious when I heard that Taika Waititi was making Jojo Rabbit, a historical satire about a ten-year-old German boy who is a member of the Hitler Youth and imagines that Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi, who is partly Jewish) is his best friend.
I went to see Jojo Rabbit earlier this week, and unsurprisingly it’s a trip. Especially in the opening sequence when the boy, Johannes, goes to a Hitler Youth camp, the satire comes so fast and thick that I was laughing many times even when I was cringing and wondering if I shouldn’t be laughing. (Is it actually funny that a camp leader is teaching all of the young girls that their sole purpose in Nazi Germany is to make beautiful blond-haired children? Even if the acting and framing make it abundantly clear that the filmmakers think this is absurd?)
As in Wilderpeople, the humor is zany, awkward, and occasionally culturally loaded, so the comedy certainly didn’t disappoint. But also like Wilderpeople, Jojo Rabbit balances its hilarity with real danger, grief, and character growth. Waititi isn’t afraid to gives his characters traumas to overcome (it goes without saying that the traumas of World War II were legion), but it’s the careful chemistry of humor, loss, and hope that I find so appealing about Waititi’s work. In many ways it reminds me of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which at their best put crazy episodes of love potions gone wrong side by side with scenes of emotional turmoil or even the death of beloved characters.
I continue to be impressed with the child actors in Waititi’s films, and the dynamics between the child and adult actors. Perhaps because there are so many children in my family life, this somehow makes Waititi’s work more “realistic” to me. In a similar vein, I enjoyed seeing Scarlett Johansson playing a normal human being, not a sexy-voiced robot or a leather-clad superspy. Her role is still larger than life in many ways, but her character is hopeful and playful and sad all at once—complicated in a good way.
Of course I trawled the Wikipedia page after seeing Jojo Rabbit, and I do have to agree with the criticism that the film is in places too light. There are too many nice Nazis. Their living conditions, clothes, and food are too nice. I was reminded of a book I read when researching my own Wold War II novel, Frederic Tubach’s German Voices: Memories of Life During Hitler’s Third Reich, which detailed German civilian life during the war. In many ways, Jojo Rabbit doesn’t reflect the realities of World War II, and with such a devastating and traumatic world event, erring on the side of flippancy can be problematic. At heart, though, I think Waititi’s project is one of hope and empathy, and there’s plenty I can learn from his work in how to show the good and the bad, the funny and the serious, together in one place.