Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a lonely German boy who discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl called Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Aided only by his imaginary friend — Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) — Jojo must confront his blind nationalism as World War II continues to rage on.
Hitler: What’s wrong, little man?
Jojo: They call me a scared rabbit.
Hitler: Let them say whatever they want. People used to say a lot of nasty things about me. “Oh, this guy’s a lunatic.” “Oh, look at that psycho. He’s gonna get us all killed.”
A few years ago, I did something rather peculiar. I had been offered the chance to see Joss Whedon’s alleged bastardisation of the now-fabled Zack Snyder Justice League movie. As a tragically self-confessed ‘DC guy’, seeing this film seemed like an inevitability. However, as I reached the box office of my local picture house, I opted to watch Marvel Studio’s Thor: Ragnarok instead. Now, what made this decision truly odd was that I had already seen Ragnarok three times by this point. So, what made me ditch my beloved Batman for a technicolour marvel—pun intended—of a space opera? The answer was director Taika Waititi, a Kiwi comic who managed to do something rather extraordinary: he made Thor fun. No mean feat when considering the Avenger’s previous outing in 2013’s soulless Thor: The Dark World.
Going into Waititi’s latest venture, an adaptation of Christine Leunens’ Caging Skies, I wondered if Waititi could pull the same trick twice and make something only marginally worse than Thor: The Dark World, i.e. Nazis, fun? The answer is both yes and no, and this was presumably Waititi’s intent from the get-go.
Jojo Rabbit is the story of 10-year-old Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a lonely boy who just wants to fit in. Unfortunately, as a German child living towards the climax of World War Two, fitting in means being an indoctrinated Nazi fanatic and active Hitler Youth participant—a venture the innocent lad wholeheartedly embraces. Even more unfortunate for Jojo is the fact that most of his fellow Deutsches Jungvolk are bullies who mockingly call him ‘rabbit’ for perceived cowardice based on traits you and I would read as kindness and compassion. Thankfully for Jojo, his best imaginary friend in the whole wide Reich—an uncharacteristically kind and sympathetic Polynesian Hitler (Waititi)—is at hand to help mentor the young Nazi through these adolescent trials. Soon, however, Jojo’s life is thrown into turmoil and his loyalties are tested when he discovers that his mother, the kind-hearted Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), has a dangerous secret: she is harbouring Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teenager. Will Jojo stay in Hitler’s good books and condemn his mother and Elsa to a terrible death, or will he betray his beloved Führer to help keep them safe?
In Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), Waititi successfully framed the dark and bewilderingly insane world of the adult through the eyes of a child protagonist. Here, a similar perspective is taken to the extreme setting of total war. Jojo is a delight to follow and his journey from ignorant—or innocent—Nazi sycophant to a maturing individual increasingly aware of the true depravity of his beloved ideology is heart rendering. In what is his debut role, Roman Griffin Davis gives an utterly charming performance. You can’t help but root for Jojo and hope that he somehow escapes this awful experience unscathed, both physically and emotionally.
Thomasin McKenzie also shines throughout. As mentioned, her character has been saved by Jojo’s mother and, in return, she begins a dialogue with Jojo that may offer the boy his own salvation of sorts. They both represent the thing they each fear the most; for the rational Elsa, she fears the Nazis; for the ignorant Jojo, he fears the Jews. Elsa takes great delight in subtlety ridiculing Jojo’s bizarre perceptions of the Jewish people and their faith, but it is her obvious humanity which slowly forces Jojo to confront the hateful falseness of his ideology.
As with any great child-centric movie, the adult cast that surrounds the young protagonists expertly elevate the piece. In particular, Scarlett Johansson excels as Rosie, the brave anti-Nazi conspirator who offers both Jojo and Elsa her greatest asset in the fight against the evils of Nazism: a mother’s love. Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant provide amusing takes as their respective Nazi officers—Merchant’s portrayal of a Gestapo interrogator is awfully unnerving, offering us his trademark charm and bumbling awkwardness only with more malevolence than we are accustomed to. Praise must also fall on the double act of Hitler Youth leader Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his second-in-command, Finkel (Alfie Allen). There is a fascinating and enigmatic chemistry between the two. Klenzendorf’s despondent attitude towards the futility of war adds further gravity to an already grim tale. Moreover, Rockwell is just great with his comedic timing, not wasting a single opportunity to get a wry chuckle from us, his audience.
I had assumed that Jojo’s imaginary friend was going to be a slight rehash of Ragnorok’s Korg. Alas, there’s no ‘Piss off, Goebbels’ line to be found in Jojo Rabbit, which is a real shame. Whilst Jojo’s Hitler is, at times, hilarious, we get instead a dark influencer who offers Jojo something that all lonely children desire more than anything else: a chance to fit in. This imaginary Hitler effectively plays on Jojo’s fear in order to further indoctrinate the boy. The power of a malevolent force to influence young and vulnerable people is a problem all too real in our modern, social-media age, and Waititi taps into this fear with spectacular results. Thankfully, Jojo does have another best friend—only second to the Führer, of course—Archie Yates’ brilliantly dry Yorki, a boy just as confused as Jojo but emotionally wise beyond his years. Yates is a delight and will make you smile every time he gives a uniquely calm take on their increasingly horrific situation.
Should a subject as serious as Nazism and the Holocaust ever be the subject for humour? For what it’s worth, I think all subjects are fair game when it comes to comedy. The only question should be who and/or what are we being asked to mock? It is quite clear to this critic that Jojo Rabbit’s only target for ridicule is Nazism. Indeed, Waititi’s approach to this understandably controversial subject matter feels rightfully in line with its spiritual predecessors, satires that employ comedy as a means of drawing attention to the horrific tragedy of the Third Reich—there’s a reason why the sock and buskin masks come as a pair. Think Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1967), Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997) and, more obviously, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940). Waititi’s slapstick portrayal of Jojo’s imaginary Hitler manages to embody the paradoxical duality of this dark figure as brilliantly realised by Chaplin as early as 1940. Both Waititi’s Hitler and Chaplin’s fictionalised parody, Adenoid Hynkel, are ridiculous buffoons who we rightly laugh at. They are both also charismatic influencers whose threat to the world is no laughing matter. Throughout the course of the movie, Jojo’s development as a character is darkly reflected in his relationship with the imaginary Führer, with—and I cannot believe I’m about to type this—‘fun’ Hitler’s delightful companionship slowly morphing into an awkward, tense and ultimately deranged despot that sent a chill down this critic’s spine.
Jojo Rabbit’s opening titles are cut to a dizzying array of actual Nazi propaganda cleverly montaged to the Beatles’ own German-language cover of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’—for anyone unfamiliar with John Lennon’s repeated bellowing of ‘komm, gib mir deine hand!’, this must be an utterly surreal experience, let alone when paired with the image of a thousand war-crazed Nazis frogmarching in terrifying precision. This sequence perfectly sets the film’s tone. It’s a distortion of seemingly familiar sites and sounds that make you smile in a peculiarly uncomfortable way. Throughout the film, you laugh merrily as the silly German children run and frolic with live grenades in their tiny, Aryan hands—think Dad’s Army meets Bugsy Malone. Then, a crawling dread creeps in as it slowly dawns on you that in the final days of this terrible conflict it is such children whose blood will be needlessly spent in defence of an already lost dream—or should that be nightmare?
Christian R. Allan
Jojo Rabbit is showing at cinemas nationwide now.