There is no denying that Taika Waititi is a talented filmmaker and a charismatic presence onscreen, with killer comic timing. However, as witnessed by his very underwhelming debut feature Eagle Vs. Shark, sometimes the tightrope tone that he straddles can tip over into awkward mawkishness, or worse still, characterisations that do not ring true. With JoJo Rabbit, that’s the least of the film’s problems.
JoJo Rabbit recently played at the Jewish Film Festival to much hype, ultimately voted third audience favourite. Its pre-release has been hyped to the gills through the Disney machine (originally, the film was produced by 20th Century Fox, but no doubt after heavy negotiations, it is now being released by the mouse house following their Fox acquisition) and Taika Waititi is all over the cinema socials and mainstream media cracking everyone up with his dry sense of humour. Early in the film’s promotion, he also stated that he’s technically Jewish (his mum’s side), so it’s fine for him to tell this story, seen through the naïve eyes of a 10-year-old German boy indoctrinated by Nazism’s Aryan ideals.
Waititi’s most successful films – Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople – have followed the similar formula of seeing a broken world through the eyes of a young boy. However, in JoJo Rabbit, this world is more than simply broken, it’s the setting for the biggest genocide in world history, and it happened in living memory. Waititi’s choice to show the action purely from the German point of view is brave, but it’s also a misstep that is hard to ignore, especially for a bittersweet coming of age comedy that ultimately tries to pull at the heart strings. There are elements of satire throughout the film (Waititi as a buffoonish Hitler, for one), but ultimately, it’s completely misplaced because the film doesn’t go all the way with it; in fact, this stylistically problematic film ultimately goes for tears, when it should have gone for the throat.
Stylistically here does not refer to the look of the film, which is second to none, reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s heightened immaculately production-designed quirkiness, both in look and construction (the use of classic songs sung in German for one). Stylistic flourishes such as Waititi bringing attention to himself through a weird visual juxtaposition of Hitler with shots of himself as the character, along with a to-camera moment at the end of the film, take you out of the story rather than being exhilarating, as was no doubt intended.
Various pundits, and Waititi himself, have spoken about JoJo Rabbit as a warning against indoctrination. At a time when politicians around the world are scaring the middle and lower classes with threats of outsiders taking their jobs and their homes, there has never been a better time to heed this warning, however, JoJo Rabbit is not that film because it is not brave enough to spell it out in a clear enough way for audiences to take away with any conviction. It’s all surface level, with nothing underneath. In this way, it is reminiscent of the recent Green Book, which audiences and awards voters adored despite its surface level treatment of America’s racist past.
Famously, Jerry Lewis made a film about the Holocaust (The Day the Clown Cried, 1972) which he restricted from screening until 2024, and Roberto Benigni’s concentration camp-set Life is Beautiful was criticised for its use of humour and lack of politics. Although a big award winner, it has largely been forgotten now. These films must have been at the back of Waititi’s mind when approaching JoJo Rabbit, finding a way to tell a story about this highly problematic part of history. You have to admire his efforts to humanise Nazism for the masses, however, the film is ethically problematic in its trivialisation of such a horrendous part of our history. It’s also not a very funny film – not as funny as his previous efforts, that’s for sure, which hints at the filmmaker pulling his punches.
Back in 1967, Mel Brooks made a film called The Producers, which was later remade and also enjoyed great success as a play. The plot hinges on a couple of shysters who stage a play that needs to bomb. They choose ‘Springtime for Hitler’, a musical about the Fuhrer, which proves to be a smash hit. With JoJo Rabbit, Taika Waititi has decided to make a comedy about Hitler seen through German eyes. It may win awards and fans, and end up the big winner at the box office during the prized Boxing Day release slot. But ultimately, Waititi has made ‘Springtime for Hitler’ and certainly not the pointed and highly entertaining The Producers.