JoJo Rabbit (2019): Waititi’s Satire of Nazi Germany–Effort to Combine Dark Humor and Sentimental Pathos

Writer-director Taika Waititi brings his signature style of humor and pathos to JoJo Rabbit, a World War II satire of a lonely and brainwashed German boy, named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis).

Jojo’s world view is turned upside down when he discovers that his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic.  Aided only by his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), Jojo must confront his nationalism.

Based upon the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, the movie stars Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson.

The behind-the-scenes team includes director of photography Mihai Malaimare, production designer Ra Vincent, editor Tom Eagles, music composer Michael Giacchino, costume designer Mayes Rubeo, make-up and hair designer Dannelle Satherley and visual effects supervisor Jason Chen.

“I have always been drawn to stories that see life through children’s eyes. In this case, it happens to be a kid that we might not normally invest in. My grandfather fought against the Nazis in World War II and I’ve always been fascinated by that time and those events. When my mother told me about Christine Leunen’s book Caging Skies, I was drawn in by the fact it was told through the eyes of a German child indoctrinated into hate by adults.

Having children of my own, I have become even more aware that adults are supposed to guide children through life and raise them to be better versions of themselves, and yet in times of war, adults are often doing the opposite. In fact, from a child’s point of view, during these times adults appear chaotic and absurd when all the world needs is guidance and balance.

I experienced a certain level of prejudice growing up as a Māori Jew, so making Jojo Rabbit has been a reminder, especially now, that we need to educate our kids about tolerance and continue to remind ourselves that there’s no place in this world for hate. Children are not born with hate, they are trained to hate.

I hope the humour in film helps engage a new generation; it’s important to keep finding new and inventive ways of telling the horrific story of World War II again and again for new generations, so that our children can listen, learn, and move forward, unified into the future.

Here’s to putting an end to ignorance and replacing it with love.” Taika Waititi

“Jojo Betzler, ten and a half years old: today you join the ranks of the Jungvolk…You are in peak mental and physical condition. You have the body of a panther and the mind of…a brainy panther. You are a shiny example of shiny perfection.” Jojo Betzler

Jojo Rabbit tries to offer a funny yet stirring, child’s-eye view of a society gone mad with intolerance. Drawing on his own Jewish heritage and his experiences growing up surrounded by prejudice, writer-director Taika Waititi (whose mother is Jewish, and father is Māori) aims to make a statement against hate with satire of the Nazi culture and the German psyche at the height of WWII.


Jojo Rabbit
A propaganda-style poster with Nazi aesthetics. The ensemble characters of the film have cardboard cutout-like borders framing them.

Theatrical release poster

The story is almost too appalling to approach with sober solemnity.  After all, at the center is a boy who, like many at that time, was brainwashed into gung-ho devotion to Hitler.

He then mines from it a dark, mesmerizing comedy that ultimately unravels the toxic ideas of anti-Semitism and persecution of the other.  Waititi mixes satire with insistent sense of hope that fanaticism and hate can be overcome.

The film is inspired by Waititi’s personal filmmaking heroes: Mel Brooks, Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch and Stanley Kubrick. Like those directors, Waititi searched for a fresh way to revisit the most unsettling of topics through the paradoxically moral force of parody. Waititi echoes Brooks in particular, as a Jewish actor disrupting the enduring power of Hitler’s image with a zany, ridiculing portrait.

But Jojo Rabbit feels very much of our times, with its human characters whose blinded foibles might amuse but whose inner predicaments are deadly real and pointedly relevant right now.

Based on Christine Leunens’ acclaimed novel Caging Skies, published in 2004, the story begins in fictional Falkenheim, a quaint town under Nazi rule, at the end of the war.

Jojo Betzler, age 10, finally has the chance he’s been waiting all his life–to join the Jungvolk, aka The Hitler Youth.  He is credulously gullible and susceptible to the pervasive propaganda that surrounds him.  It feels like his first opportunity to do something “big” and “important,” to protect the single mother he loves, and maybe even to feel like he belongs.

Jojo brings along an outsized imaginary friend, a clownish, hare-brained
apparition of Hitler, dispenses the kind of advice Jojo might have sought from his absent father. With Adolf in his head, Jojo feels invincible. But Jojo’s troubles are just beginning.

In the first scene, set in the Jungvolk camp, he’s publicly humiliated (and nearly decapitated), when he is ordered to kill a rabbit–but finds himself unable to do so.

Slowly, yet radically, he begins to see the world in a new light. Chasing what he believes to be some kind of phantasm, he finds instead that his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl in the wall at terrible risk to them all. The shock nearly undoes him—here is the “danger” he’s been warned about living in his own home, under his own nose, just feet away from where he regularly confides in his imaginary friend Hitler.

But as Jojo endeavors to keep an eye on the mysterious Elsa, his fear and vigilance grow into something even Adolf cannot seem to fathom.  The more he gets to know Elsa as a person, the more she becomes someone Jojo can’t
imagine allowing anyone to harm.

While Jojo Rabbit is a comic allegory about the costs of letting bigotry take hold, whether in your bedroom or a nation, Jojo also takes a very real journey as a child coming-of-age.  In finding the courage to open his mind, he discovers the power of love to change your path.

Waititi says he wanted to upend his own comfort zone, and to challenge the notion that stories about the Nazi era have been played out, especially when the lessons of those times are so urgent right now. With nationalism, anti-Semitism and other forms of religious and racial intolerance on the rise, the stakes of grabbing people’s attention felt sky-high.

“I knew I didn’t want to make a straight-out drama about hatred and prejudice because we’ve become just so used to that style of drama,” Waititi explains. “When something seems a little too easy, I like to bring in chaos. I’ve always believed comedy is the best way to make an audience more comfortable. In Jojo Rabbit, I bring the audience in with laughter, and once they’ve dropped their guard, then start delivering these little payloads of drama that have serious weight to them.”

For novelist Leunens, Waititi’s compacted, and humorous take on her book was a beautiful use of comedy in serving to convey a story of immense gravity. “In Taika’s film, laughs are never free,” Leunens notes. “There are strings attached. Even if you don’t see them right away, you’ll feel them. It’s after the laugh that the strings start to be felt, drawing one’s consciousness to things that aren’t quite right, aren’t entirely funny, into deeper, more complex emotions—including the realization of the absurdity of the situation, and the tragedy and pain.”


Directed by Taika Waititi
Screenplay by Waititi, based on Caging Skies by Christine Leunens
Produced by Carthew Neal, Waititi, Chelsea Winstanley

Cinematography Mihai Mălaimare Jr.
Edited by Tom Eagles
Music by Michael Giacchino

Production companies: Fox Searchlight Pictures
TSG Entertainment, Defender Films, Piki Films

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Release dates: Sept 8, 2019 (TIFF), Oct 18, 2019 (US)
Running time: 108 minutes
Budget $14 million
Box office $90.3 million