Happy? Check. Sad? Check. Director/writer/actor Taika Waititi (of Māori and Jewish descent) playing Adolf Hitler by way of a little boy’s imaginary friend? Check.
Riding high from his success with 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi has returned to the silver screen with his satirical black comedy, Jojo Rabbit. Based on Christine Leunen’s novel, Caging Skies, the film follows lonely ten-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a young German boy who is eager to his part for his country, in this case, Nazi Germany at the height of World War II. As Jojo navigates this world, he discovers that his single mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has hidden a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. With only his bumbling imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) for support, Jojo must confront his blind nationalism.
Taika has said in several interviews that this film was impossible to pitch and that, instead, he let his script do the talking. On the surface, this is a film that many would argue shouldn’t work. Particularly when considering its director/writer’s decision to play a Māori version of Hitler. Fortunately, Taika is able to bring his signature humour to this premise, injecting it with a style that rivals Wes Anderson, and the heart his films have become known for.
Described as an “anti-hate satire”, Jojo Rabbit introduces us to our young protagonist’s worldview fairly quickly. Cue the opening, a montage of historical black-and-white footage set to a German-language cover of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. Juxtaposing the upbeat pop of the 60’s against the fanaticism of Nazi Gemrany sets the tone brilliantly. Lonely and clearly missing his father, who has been at war for a year, young Jojo is seeking somewhere to belong. In a frustrating way, it makes sense that this young boy would gravitate to the Hitler Youth; he may see himself as a patriot, but in reality he’s just a fanboy. Drawn like a moth to the flame, Jojo simply cannot resist the grandiose pageantry of the Nazi Party. Production designer, Ra Vincent, highlights this with Jojo’s bedroom. Filled to the brim with Nazi memorabilia and posters, Jojo is that quintessential fan, through and through.
Fortunately, Jojo has his mum. Played with a dry wit and a cool head, Scarlett Johansson stands out as Jojo’s mother, Rosie. Really bringing the “anti-hate” to this satirical film, Rosie spends a lot of her time onscreen patiently trying to reach her son, showing him love and affection, and trying her damnedest to teach him the destructive flaws of hate. And, as we learn of her protection of Elsa, we see glimpses of the work she is doing off-screen. As much as Rosie is passionate, Elsa exudes cool. A friend of Jojo’s late older sister, Elsa is the first person in the film to really treat Jojo like his own person, all whilst, understandably, mocking his beliefs.
The cast are incredible, even when only given small things to do. The three in charge of the Hitler Youth camp all highlight the silly lens that Jojo Rabbit views Nazis through: From the bitter (but still “good”) Captain “K” Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), his loyal and well-intentioned worryingly indoctrinated instructor Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson), these figures are all, in some form or another, a joke. The same goes for Stephen Merchant’s Captain Deertz, a Gestapo agent who leads a tense scene that is constantly peppered with casual, offhand greetings of “Heil Hitler”. Although in as much of the film as much as I would have preferred, Archie Yates’ performant as Jojo’s sweet best friend, Yorki, is reminiscent of some of Nick Frost’s best work with Simon Pegg.
Taika’s performance of Hitler brings us some of the silliest moments in the film (such as Hitler eating roast unicorn while a hungry Jojo watches), but emphasises how Hitler and the Nazi Party barely conceal the ugly hatred that drives them. Charismatic to a fault and with ridiculous ideas, that even Jojo questions, the boy’s imaginary Hitler is a buffoon. Despite this, he lifts Jojo’s spirits, serving as a father figure of sorts, in the absence of Jojo’s real father. As Jojo starts to question his beliefs though, we see Taika’s performance turn irate, bringing out Hitler the madman. This character picks on Jojo’s vulnerabilities and insecurities, representing a larger fear of the state and the threat of what will happen if Jojo goes against them.
The star of this show though, is Roman Griffin Davis as our eponymous lead. Davis’s performance as Jojo is underscored by the boy’s desire to belong. However, this doesn’t always mean he’s a sympathetic figure. A particular highlight is the back-and-forth between Davis and Johansson as the former throws a tantrum, spouting Nazi rhetoric as the latter loses patience with him. Earnest and sincere, through the eyes of Jojo we are given a new angle on the tried and true subject of World War II.
Overall, for fans of Taika Waititi, this is a “return to form” of sorts. Or, at the very least, it’s a return to the indie cinema that put him on the map in the first place. While it is sure to be controversial to some, I personally found it to be a refreshing take on familiar subject matter, with Taika once again finding humour in the least expected places.