The Sound of Hitler
Never let it be said that you can't do a family-friendly, acclaimed, popular movie about Nazism: the bloomin' Sound of Music was on again the other night, sending the usual dubious message that the best way of dealing with a fascist takeover of your government is to start singing at it. But the danger of doing funny stuff about the Nazis is that the joke will end up being on you. To paraphrase the late Clive James, if Nazism was a joke, then it was a cruel joke played by history on the world, and one that we should be careful of laughing at too freely.
Quite reasonably, this sentiment seems to be fairly widespread in civilised society, which may be why the publicity material for Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit has been stressing the fact that this isn't just a black comedy about life in Nazi Germany, but a film with important things to say about understanding, tolerance, etc, etc. That doesn't change the fact that the trailer seems designed to provoke that old Kipling line about the sheer audacity of the thing. (I should mention that this is a rare example of one of those films enjoying a staggered international release: which is to say it has only just come out in the UK, a couple of months after many other countries.)
Roman Griffin Davis plays Johannes Betzler, a ten-year-old boy living somewhere in Germany towards the end of the Second World War. His father and sister are both gone, due to the war, and he is living alone with his mother – or so he thinks, anyway. (Johannes' mother is played by Scarlett Johansson: it feels like there should be some sort of joke in there, but I just can't find it.) Like many young lads, he has an imaginary friend, but what is slightly unusual in this case is that his pal is Adolf Hitler (Waititi), or at least his own slightly warped idea of what Hitler is like. As the film starts, Jojo (for so is he known) leads a fairly happy, carefree life, heedless of the advancing Allies: he and his friends go off on Hitler Youth activity weekends, have fun burning books, learn to recognise Jews, and so on.
However, things get a bit more complicated when Jojo discovers an interloper in the family home: a teenage girl who is living in the wainscotting. Her name is Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), and she is a Jewish refugee given refuge by Jojo's mother. What is a dedicated young Nazi supposed to do in a situation like this one? Things are not made any easier when it turns out that Elsa is not the vile, horned cannibal he has been led to expect, but actually seems to be quite a pleasant young woman...
Now, of course, the idea of using Nazism as the source of jokes in a bad-taste comedy is hardly a new one: Mel Brooks won an Oscar for The Producers over fifty years ago, and there's a lot of the same provocative spirit here too – 'It's time to burn some books!' cries Rebel Wilson as one of the Hitler Youth instructors (her charges cheer with delight), while Sam Rockwell initially appears to be turning in one of his more uninhibited performances as the wounded army veteran put in charge of the group. But, on the other hand, there is that storyline about Elsa hiding in Jojo's house and their developing friendship. So which is this to be? A wild comedy of excess, made acceptable by a more thoughtful, human-interest subplot? Or an attempt at a film with genuine heart and emotion, perked up now and then by some jokes about Swastikas and comedy Gestapo agents?
I think, in the end, that Jojo Rabbit is a bit less bold and outrageous than its publicity suggests it to be – or perhaps I should say that it is not consistently provocative. There are lengthy semi-serious segments, mostly concerning Jojo's relationships with his mother and with Elsa, which do function on a more naturalistic level and are obviously attempting to engage with the audience's emotions – not without success, I should add. Only occasionally do Rockwell, Wilson, and the others turn up for another sketch-like interlude.
In the end I suppose we should be grateful for this, but on the other hand there is the awkward problem that the comic scenes are much more successful than the more serious ones – by which I mean they mostly get the laughs they're aiming for, mainly due to a decent script and full-blooded performances from a cast who know what they're doing. The more measured scenes are not actually bad, with Johansson in particular clearly working hard, but the more serious the film tries to be, the more awkward it feels – as if it's playing a role out of obligation, rather than any real conviction. At one point there's a sequence where stirring music plays as Jojo watches the civilian population of his home town squandering their lives in a futile attempt to hold off the advancing Allies – but it's hard to think of any message this is supposed to be putting across that isn't trite or facile.
Perhaps it would work better if there was more of a sense of the film being grounded in an actual historical setting, but the film is vague at best about the actual period in which it takes place. You could argue that all films set in recent history look identical, and this is an attempt to avoid that cliche (the cinematography and art directon are much brighter and less textured than you might expect) – but something about that kind of look does give a sense of verisimilitude, which is lacking here. I'm not saying the costumes or sets are wrong, but it just doesn't feel like the 1940s, and odd details like Jojo's home town being invaded by both Americans and Russians on the same day just add to the sense of this essentially being a cartoon even when it's attempting to be serious.
This is by no means a terrible film with which to start the year – there are some good performances, it is frequently very funny, and its heart is certainly in the right place. But it seems to me that the comedic elements of the film just work to make it feel superficial, detracting from the more serious story which is really at its heart. Not the worst film a bunch of comedians have made about the Nazis – that honour still probably goes to The Day the Clown Cried, or at least it would if anyone was allowed to watch it – but it is rather uneven, even in its better moments.