Programme Notes: Jojo Rabbit

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Please note that this article contains spoilers.

In Taika Waititi's second feature, Boy (2010), Alamein (played by Waititi) pushes aside a painting in his son's rural New Zealand bedroom – which used to be his own room – to reveal a thick swastika carved into the wall. 'I did that', he declares proudly to his son, before adding with a confidently paternal air: 'don't get into the Nazi stuff'. If only Johannes 'Jojo' Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) had been given such sound advice in his childhood. He, like the title character Boy (James Rolleston) before him, has founded his entire worldview on the belief that his chosen figures of authority always tell the truth, and will always give him sound advice.

Jojo's own ersatz role model is likewise played by Waititi, albeit here in the guise of a pally Adolf Hitler. This fits the director squarely into a long line of comic Führers, from Charlie Chaplin's Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator (1940) to Mel Brooks' incarnation, connected to his remake of To Be or Not to Be (dir Alan Johnson, 1983). Jojo Rabbit seems at least partly indebted to the latter film's comic sensibilities, even sharing a predilection for Star of David hand gesture gags - although Waititi (perhaps thankfully) has stopped before going the full Brooks, his predecessor having donned the tiny moustache for a tie-in dance single, subtitled 'The Hitler Rap'.

Waititi's latest work shows the continuing development of several themes that appear throughout his filmography. Alongside Boy, there is none which more anticipates the central drama of Jojo Rabbit so much as his breakthrough short, the Oscar-nominated Two Cars, One Night (2004). A vignette of a meeting between nine-year-old Romeo (Rangi Ngamoki) and twelve-year-old Polly (Hutini Waikato) in a hotel bar carpark, it sets a similar template to the relationship between ten-year-old Jojo and teenager Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie). Both films centre largely on a younger boy and older girl who meet in a public-private, ostensibly adult-delineated space, but who are nevertheless allowed to largely set their own terms in approaching each other, leading from initial antagonism and mutual distrust to something much more nuanced.

Waititi often uses child characters in his films to serve as canvases for portrayals of innocence – yet, if his children are childlike, his adults are also childish. One doesn't have to look further than the similarities between the opening sequences of Jojo Rabbit, with Jojo psyching himself up before his big Hitler Youth camp holiday, and Waititi's first feature, Eagle vs Shark (2007), where Lily (Loren Horsley) likewise stands at a mirror, playing out a personal romantic fantasy. The only real distinction between the two is that Lily is an ostensibly adult woman rather than a pre-adolescent boy.

Waititi's use of such innocents allows him to explore his interest in characters who not only wish to believe, but wish to convince others to believe them. They frequently attempt to lie, but circumstances demand that they are ultimately obliged to tell the truth. Often, this is through their total incompetence at lying, given they are usually either not clever or knowledgeable enough to fully conceal their attempts at duplicity. Waititi's characters in earlier films lie for a variety of reasons: to impress, to maintain social currency, out of ignorance, out of spite, out of fear. But, whether it's Ricky (Julian Dennison) trying to fake his own death to escape child welfare in Hunt for the Wilderpeople (dir Taika Waititi, 2016), or Romeo trying to impress Polly by convincing her that he is almost twice his actual age, whatever the peril for these other characters, the stakes are rarely as high as they are for Jojo and Elsa (apart from involving actual stakes, as in What We Do in the Shadows [dir Taika Waititi, 2014]). Unlike the similarly ill-deceived Polly, Elsa is not just a worldly-wise object of affection for her co-protagonist – she is a Jewish orphan seeking refuge from the Holocaust. Here, lying leads to genuine physical threat, just as surely as revealing the truth would lead to death.

When the characters in Jojo Rabbit deceive, it is with the knowledge that their deceptions will endanger lives. Jojo spells it out early on in the film: everyone is withholding some information from someone, and if any of them are found out then there will be consequences for them all. Ultimately, these characters long for credibility, but Waititi's characters are almost always inherently credulous. Even when they don't trust the information they receive, they still want to believe it - not out of stupidity, but from the inherent human desire to feel trust amidst an otherwise hostile environment. One of the dreams of life, according to Jojo's mum, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is to trust without fear. 'How do you know you can trust someone?', Elsa asks. 'You trust them', replies Rosie. In Jojo Rabbit's themes of misplaced trust betrayed – and the necessity for fanatical believers to be wilfully disillusioned – Waititi draws parallels between a past regime, whose greatest crimes were made possible through the reluctance of a population to mistrust temptations of easy answers and confirmation bias, and its insidious modern-day equivalents.

Marc David Jacobs
Freelance Arts Worker
8 January 2020

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All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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