During the opening credits of Taika Waititi’s 2014 comedy What We Do in the Shadows, a group of vampires living in a flat in Wellington introduce themselves to the film crew that will be chronicling their activities as part of a documentary project. One of them, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), explains that he originally hails from Germany and that he spent the 1940s identifying as a “Nazi vampire”; we cut to stock footage of Hitler ranting and doctored black-and-white footage of Brugh recoiling in the presence of a cross. It’s an absurd gag aligning historical avatars of unspeakable evil, with a wryly embedded punch line implying that the character sees himself on the wrong side of intersectionality, stigmatized by both of his affiliations. “If you were a Nazi vampire, no way,” he sighs, looking afflicted. “I was out of there.”
I thought about Deacon while watching Waiti’s new film Jojo Rabbit, which won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and goes much further than its predecessor in trying to turn fascism into comic fodder. It’s the story of an enthusiastic 10-year-old Hitler youth named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) caught between the anti-Nazi activism of his saintly, seemingly widowed mother (Scarlett Johansson) and the intolerant philosophy of his imaginary friend, who happens to be the führer (played by the director). After discovering that Mom is hiding an orphaned Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in a secret chamber in their home, Jojo is forced to confront both his own prejudices and the racist, genocidal narratives he’s eagerly bought into in the name of feeling included.
To say that there’s a difference between a throwaway joke about the Third Reich being infested with bloodsuckers and chasing Charlie Chaplin via an award-trawling “anti-hate satire” is an understatement. One can look at Jojo Rabbit as Waititi’s attempt to push beyond the comfort zone he’s cultivated since he made the move from sketch comedy to filmmaking in the early 2000s. That impulse to be taken more seriously is further contextualized by Jojo being the direct follow-up to Thor: Ragnarok, a movie whose success is the kind that should leave Waititi set for several lifetimes while it also potentially straitjackets his talents. Leaving aside the question of whether or not MCU titles constitute “cinema,” they’re hardly fertile ground for subversion; notwithstanding Ragnarok’s relatively loose, playful tone, it’s ultimately just another expensive jigsaw piece in Marvel’s monolithic, interlocking product.
In theory, Waititi using the blank check earned by Thor to pay for a movie awash in swastikas is an act of artistic boldness—an example of an ascendant talent forcing the mainstream to meet him on his own challenging terms. And yet Jojo Rabbit doesn’t necessarily represent any sort of newfound maturity or even a significant mutation of its creator’s approach. If anything, it suggests how deeply ingrained Waititi’s sensibilities are; for better and for worse, it’s palpably of a piece with his previous work.
One hallmark of the films Waititi made in New Zealand is their child’s-eye perspective of the complexities of the adult world. It’s an approach that can be affecting if handled deftly, as in the director’s Oscar-nominated 2004 short Two Cars, One Night. Shot in shadowy, tactile black and white, the film is set entirely in the parking lot of a roadside pub where a 9-year-old boy and his younger brother have been left by their parents to wait out a night of drinking; the spot opposite them is soon occupied by another vehicle whose drivers have also gone inside, sentencing their 11-year-old daughter to a similarly long wait.
The fulcrum of Two Cars, One Night is romantic yearning: The main character is named Romeo, and over the course of the short’s 11-minute running time, he does everything he can to get the girl to notice him. What’s more affecting than their courtship is the way that Waititi visualizes the kids as miniature adults, propped up in the front seat of cars that dwarf their small bodies, hinting at grown-up futures rushing up to meet them faster than they know. The suggestion of being on the outside of something more serious and mysterious—and frightening—is conveyed by the space of the parking lot, the lights of the bar, and the choreography of the characters, with Romeo’s nervous energy bumping up against the stasis of the situation (which gets ironically emphasized by Waititi’s intermittent, weirdly melancholy use of sped-up footage). It’s a lovely film that understands brief encounters can cast long shadows; because we can feel how the night will linger in Romeo’s memory, it stays in ours as well.
If Two Cars, One Night represents what’s best about Waititi’s approach, his 2007 feature debut Eagle vs Shark mostly occupies the other end of the spectrum. It’s a strenuously eccentric romantic comedy about shy, childlike adults who meet while dressed as the eponymous animals and proceed to have a tentative love affair. In trying to make his leads seem endearingly awkward, Waititi ends up inadvertently condescending to them, capitulating to a cuteness that, whatever its intention, places the audience above the socially inept, sexually inexperienced lovers played by Jemaine Clement and Loren Taylor. They’re not characters, they’re caricatures, and the whimsy quickly curdles, with several cloying Claymation sequences tipping things into fully regressive fantasy.
That warm, immersive security would be the subject of Waititi’s subsequent features, each of which improved on Eagle vs Shark while betraying some of the same overbearing quirkiness. The title of Boy refers to an 11-year-old whose obsession with his estranged, absentee father gets a reality check when the deadbeat (played by Waititi) returns and inveigles him in a criminal scheme involving a bag of buried money; the dysfunctional, hero-worshipping dynamic between James Rolleston’s soulful title character (whose nondescript name symbolizes paternal neglect) and his bad dad anticipates Jojo’s fixation on Hitler in Jojo Rabbit, right down to the way the dictator functions symbolically as a stand-in for an absent father figure in the newer film. The teenage delinquent (Julian Dennison) at the center of Hunt for the Wilderpeople gloms on to his outdoorsman foster father (Sam Neill), who ends up accompanying him on an extended pseudovision quest into the woods, where they live as “wilderpeople” and bond away from the conventions of society.
The outsider theme was better developed—and much funnier—in What We Do in the Shadows, which hardly breaks new ground with either its mock-doc aesthetic or Spaced-style inventory of pop culture references, but works because of the sharp, serrated wit of its ensemble acting, with Waititi and Clement (who codirected) both contributing amusing performances. The boredom and monotony of eternal life are ripe subjects for satire, as is the idea of vampirism as a subculture with its own cliques and in-crowds, and the film exploits these potentials smartly: There’s lots of jostling over status and superiority among the characters, who resort to pettiness despite the seemingly consequence-free nature of being immortal and all-powerful. But as good as parts of What We Do in the Shadows are, it doesn’t reach (or aspire to) the genre poetry of a movie like Jim Jarmusch’s similarly conceived Only Lovers Left Alive, which deals with aging and mortality head-on; while Waititi and Clement’s vision of vain, feeble monsters sniping at each other during endless nights of inactivity wouldn’t necessarily be improved by stabs at profundity, the film never threatens to transcend its jokey, crowd-pleasing parameters.
Jojo Rabbit, though, has been designed to make us wonder whether it goes too far—if its affable author is working without a net. This time, the opening credits are entirely comprised of Hitler footage, played underneath the German-language version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—satirically equating Nazism and Beatlemania as examples of populist fanaticism. The soundtrack selection also establishes the intentional anachronism of the film’s English-language dialogue, which has no pretense of period “realism”; the sets and costumes are evocative more of movies about Europe during World War II than the actual time and place. Waititi is trying to exploit the tension between our suspicion that nothing here is to be taken seriously—including Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson, among others, as cartoonish Nazi recruiters tossing off anti-Semitic slurs to their underaged protégé—and our knowledge that the movie is working through some of the most sensitive subject matter imaginable, including horrific incidents and ideologies previously explored in landmark works from The Pawnbroker and Schindler’s List to Night and Fog and Shoah.
Waititi is well aware of these movies, and while the narrative of Jojo Rabbit depends on us seeing that its namesake lives in a contextual vacuum, the filmmaker knows exactly what he’s doing—to a point. Like Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Waititi is interested in how a sheltered childhood can result in a kind of exalted solipsism, a rejection of reality in favor of comfort. It’s not inapt to try to map these notions onto a parable deconstructing the fascist mind-set, except that it’s so obvious from the first moments that Jojo is ultimately a kind, decent, innocent kid—the kind Waititi always makes movies about—that we never doubt the outcome of his moral and ideological education. The movie keeps telling us his soul is at stake, but it isn’t: His redemption is inevitable. And because Jojo is being used in some ways as a stand-in for an entire population—a symbol of an infantilized cohort naively worshipping Hitler as a figment of their collective imagination—the implication gets twisted. The film proposes that the majority of those who identified as Nazis were simply misguided, under the sway, as it were, of their oblivious inner children.
It’s in this aspect of the film that Waititi’s most distinguishing characteristic as a filmmaker—his ingratiating niceness, which is also embedded in his public social media persona—serves him especially poorly. It suggests that the dangerous naivete on display doesn’t belong to Jojo but to the movie itself. It’s potentially off-putting under any circumstances to watch a movie that plays, however broadly and self-consciously, with the imagery and iconography of World War II (and, just under the civilian German surface, of the Holocaust); whether the culprit is Mel Brooks doing “Springtime for Hitler” or S. Craig Zahler’s scripting Puppetmaster: The Littlest Reich, one is well within their rights to feel scandalized or trolled. But a movie that traffics in tossed-off shock value while boiling down in the end to a warm hug is actually hard to take.
Not only does the story’s progression put the onus of Jojo’s dawning realization on the women in his life—his mom and the Jewish interloper, who inevitably stirs confused romantic feelings in his prepubescent heart, just like the girl in Two Cars, One Night—but it consistently flatters the audience into a state of comfortable moral and intellectual superiority to what’s going on. That flattery is Waititi’s stock in trade, and it gets him (and us) nowhere. We can feel for Jojo as he discovers the lies that he’s been told, and we can appreciate the psychological acuity at work in the way his inner Hitler becomes increasingly spiteful and petulant as his influence wanes. But, as with the pitiably sweet, stunted heroes of Eagle vs Shark, we can’t actually imagine being him, or somebody like him, swept up in the fervor of hatred. By trying to defang Nazism at every turn by portraying its practitioners as morons, Waititi gets easy laughs—he’s not the first and he won’t be the last. By juxtaposing sketch-comedy gags with austere depictions of death and suffering, though, he gets easy pathos, and this is more of a problem.
Perhaps it’s the ease of Jojo Rabbit that made it an enervating viewing experience. Waititi’s ability to engineer emotional effects is real, but it also verges on the mechanical; a running motif where Johansson’s character is shown constantly tying her son’s laces eloquently addresses something about Jojo’s vulnerable, unformed nature while also being the sort of gimmick whose calculatedly “devastating” payoff you can see coming a mile away. Ideally, Jojo’s harshest moments wouldn’t be so easily reconciled into its slick—they’d stick out, jut forward, be jagged. It’s telling that in a crucial moment, we get a knife that fails to draw blood—it’s sharp enough but not wielded with purpose. Satire by definition isn’t nice. And while niceness may, by definition, be “anti-hate,” that doesn’t make it a useful tool in the battle against it, either.
For instance, it’s nice that Taika Waititi loves David Bowie: Both Eagle vs Shark and Jojo Rabbit feature scenes where characters dance ecstatically to one of his vintage hits. And David Bowie’s music is absolutely evidence that there is good in the world—it’s music for kids, for lovers, for all of us. Ideally, though, its presence would signify something different in a movie like Eagle vs Shark than it does in Jojo Rabbit, and in the end, beyond the superficial cleverness of using a song recorded in Berlin for a movie set in Germany (and the even more superficial resonance of the lyrics in a movie that means to be about heroism, hint hint) it really doesn’t. The closing images of Jojo Rabbit are meant as a representation of a freed mind and spirit, and the liberation that comes with embracing the goodness within and inside of others. But it’s also an image of a director in his own, very particular trap—one with no exit in sight.