Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit surprised a lot of people this past weekend when it won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Once upon a time, the award was voted on by leaving ticket stubs in ballot boxes. The advantage of this method being that anyone voting actually had to watch the film in play. Nowadays, TIFF uses an online voting system, where it’s unclear if the festival can verify if you’ve actually seen the film. All that’s required is an email address. This is all to say that the TIFF People’s Choice Award is the most radically democratic major film award handed out.
So how did Jojo Rabbit, a comedy film in which the director plays a child’s imaginary friend as Adolf Hitler, come out on top?
Prior to seeing the film at the festival, I’d heard very little about it, except that it was a comedy that satirized Nazis, specifically the Hitler-youth variety. It reeked of outrage but promised the Taika-brand humor that audiences have been loving since What We Do in the Shadows. Even in Waititi’s most commercial film, Thor: Ragnarok, it’s his peculiar type of humor that systematically kneecaps anything too weighty. The only question was whether this quality would transfer to something as serious as Nazi Germany.
At the film’s beginning, the answer seems to be yes. The opening credits run over a montage of archival footage of Hitler orating, cut together with images of people running and screaming after him. Not in terror or anger, but more in a crazed-fan, Beatlemania type of way. This moment was exactly what I was hoping for from Jojo — strong satire that asks audiences to consider how hate is dispersed, and the cult of celebrity that aides it greatly. As we are introduced to Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), his mother (Scarlett Johansson), and his instructors at the Hitler youth camp retreat (Sam Rockwell and Alfie Allen), the jokes come hard and fast.
There were a few moments that were greeted by the audience with relative silence, specifically a scene where Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) leads a class in vile anti-Semitism. It is actually in this scene where Waititi’s point comes through most strongly, that hate is something taught and learned. Wilson goes for it with her particular bone-dry energy, which complements Rockwell’s much more bombastic showing.
Then the second half of the film pivots to material so sentimental and heartfelt it could actually be a different movie. The humor is still there, but it has much less bite. This happens for two main reasons, both coming down to characterization. First is Elsa Korr, played by Thomasin Mckenzie in a remarkable performance as a Jewish girl hidden by Jojo’s mother. Elsa acts as a humanizing force in Jojo’s life. She plays along with Jojo sometimes, refutes him at other times, but ends up pointing out the ridiculousness of the satire in the film. However much it makes sense to have a “straight man” in a satire aside, Elsa takes over the critical analysis the audience should be doing.
Also, due to the discovery of Elsa, Jojo realizes his mother Rosie is part of the German resistance to Nazism. As this develops, Johansson’s scenes become less based in satire and almost wholly serious. This leaves two main characters fully outside of the reality the satire has built up. Though the influences of Rosie and Elsa are what propels Jojo’s own character development, the film begins to ignore its point.
The sequences at the beginning that made us really think about the nature of hate dissipate until the film is essentially pointing at the Nazi characters proclaiming, “Isn’t this disgusting; aren’t Nazis horrible?” We would all resoundingly shout “YES, OBVIOUSLY”, but it leaves the movie with nothing else left to say. Any moral discomfort about the transference of hatred is gone. In lieu of doing the work to deconstruct antagonism, Jojo pivots to focus on love, which is nice, but it swerves around the actual issue.
The People’s Choice winner from 2018, Green Book, went on to win the Oscar for best picture, and it has a similar problem with blinders-on togetherness (plus a million other issues). This is why Jojo Rabbit may be about to go on an awards tear. Not because it’s bold and uncompromising in its repudiation of hate, but because it forgets to be that in the light of a heartfelt story about a young boy making a friend. Although it’s hard to argue against this type of film, I find it unfortunate that Jojo so quickly forgets its provocative and perhaps very useful initial message.
Jojo Rabbit will be a crowd-pleaser because it’s aggressively uncontroversial while using window dressing that is. It’s one thing to just say that all people should be nice to each other and a better thing to try to think critically about the reason that such hate and vitriol plagues humanity. Any of the constructive tension the movie sets up in the beginning completely evaporates. The only people who will be offended by this film are actual Nazis, which makes it about as universal as possible. When you consider this wide reach, it’s no wonder Jojo scooped up the People’s Choice Award. It’s an award designed for a film just like it.