Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Taika Waititi
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephan Merchant, Archie Yates
It’s probably fair to say that when it comes to making a movie based on a very tragic and horrible time in world history, it’s best to tread lightly, lest people get offended. However, where would we be without a little humour to get us through the terrible things (and terrible people) that happen? Based on Christine Leunen’s popular book ‘Caging Skies’, Jojo Rabbit takes us through the experience of a fictional ten-year-old boy in Nazi Germany around early 1945. Children rarely see the world as adults do, with their innocence and naivety protecting them for the most part, allowing them to see things in a different way. How does such an angle affect a story that’s set towards the end of World War II? Does the comedy warrant its usage, or has Waititi taken it too far?
Young Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Davis) lives with his mother, Rosie (Johansson), in a town in Germany during the time of WWII. Jojo is a member of a Hitler Youth training camp, along with his (second) best friend, Yorki (Yates). Jojo’s first best friend is an imaginary Adolf Hitler (Waititi), who offers him friendship, guidance and blunt comments. Jojo discovers that his mother, a secret anti-Nazi campaigner, is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (McKenzie) in the walls of their house. Not wanting to betray his country and beliefs but intrigued by her, Jojo gets to know Elsa, as he wishes to learn about Jews for a book he’s writing. Knowing he can’t reveal his knowledge of Elsa’s existence, for fear that his mother will get arrested and killed, Jojo agrees to help keep her safe, risking his own life in the process. Together they try to come to an understanding of each other whilst trying to see out the end of the war, for better or worse.
You’d be forgiven if you go into this movie thinking it’s pretty much just a comedy at Hitler’s expense (which, of course, it partly is), as that’s more or less what the trailer advertises, but it certainly takes on much more than that. Waititi inserts many a dark moment into his film, some darkly comedic, some darkly shocking. At times it’s a real juxtaposition of genres and emotions, and it feels like seeing the world (specifically Nazi Germany) through the eyes of a child. One moment we’re laughing at Jojo’s wit, his imaginary Hitler or the utter doltishness of the Nazis, and in another we’re figuratively punched in the stomach as the reality of war becomes plain to see, as does the effect it has on Jojo. Waititi handles this remarkably well, encouraging us to laugh when appropriate but never letting us forget what is going on around the younger people. It’s a difficult balance to pull off, and some will likely still be offended by the comedy, but we need to understand that in the context of this film it’s fitting, and there is still plenty of sombre moments to keep it grounded and from going too overboard (also, Waititi is Maori/Jewish, so it’s highly unlikely he would want to set out to offend his own people).
The inner journey that Jojo takes acts as a great framework to highlight the absurdity of much of the Nazi regime, from the youth camp he attends and its ridiculous Nazi leaders, to the representation of the Gestapo and their humorous overuse of ‘Heil Hitler’ as a greeting. Hitler is Jojo’s hero, and is something of a father figure to him. But Hitler is no idol to be looked up to – Waititi’s portrayal is as ridiculous as the real tyrant was abominable. As Jojo experiences some of the worst aspects of war and goes through changes, so do his relationships, both real and imaginary. In conjunction with his cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., Waititi creates many scenes featuring cinematography that also reflects Jojo’s changes, from something as simple as shots filmed at around the boy’s height, to the wider shots as his mind is opened to other possibilities in the world, such as Jews perhaps not being the monsters that Hitler makes them out to be. Many aspects of the physical filmmaking have been carefully constructed to add meaning to the screenplay, a great example of Waititi’s passion for his movie.
Young Davis is an absolute standout in this, his debut film. His performance does not reflect his tender age and inexperience. Rather, he outdoes many actors five times his age, delivering his dialogue (especially the comedy) perfectly, and using his physicality and facial expressions to successfully portray his character’s thoughts and feelings. He’s a natural talent to watch out for, with a bright future ahead should he choose to continue with acting. The same can be said of McKenzie – she has a little more experience and critical acclaim to her name, but she’s still only nineteen-years-old. Her supporting performance as Elsa is strong yet empathetic, and the chemistry between McKenzie and Davis is not to be sniffed at, with their onscreen friendship screaming believability. Special mention must also go to Yates as the hilarious little Yorki. There’s something almost Pegg/Frost-like about Davis and Yates’ onscreen repartee, and it’s quite fun when they’re together in a scene. Although the youngsters outshine the adult performers for the most part, there are still excellent performances to be enjoyed: Waititi is hilariously droll as Hitler, mocking the man as he much deserves, his disdain for the Nazi leader as palpable as Adam Sandler’s when he co-wrote that scene in Little Nicky where Hitler spends his time in hell having pineapples shoved up his butt; Johansson is lovingly matriarchal as Jojo’s mother, a strong and defiant woman who’s willing to risk her life for the right thing; Rockwell’s Nazi captain is nearly as absurd as Hitler, and yet invites some empathy in some scenes, with a few minimal appearances from a chuckle-worthy Allen as his second-in-command; Wilson’s Fraulein Rahm is as funny as any Wilson character, not really a stand-out in anyway and arguably unnecessary, but she does no harm in her appearances; and Merchant’s Deertz is yet another ridiculous Nazi who adds another layer of comedy when it comes to ripping on the Gestapo and their insane notions and delusions of grandeur. Jojo Rabbit boasts a mostly excellent cast with characters ranging from the ludicrous and hilarious to the endearing and sobering.
As far as wartime-set movies go, Jojo Rabbit is something like Inglorious Basterds meets Schindler’s List, eschewing the real depths of the horror of the war and keeping it mostly light with the comedy, yet not letting us forget the heroic deeds of some people, even Germans, that occurred and saved many lives. It sits quite well somewhere in-between the two. The plot is a little thin, but we do get enough from it to come away still laughing but also thinking about what it means in the grand scheme of things (not to mention how utterly crazy Hitler really was). Waititi’s film has already been hit with multiple top ratings and critical acclaim, amidst some complaints of making it too light-hearted, but how else can Hitler’s ridiculous views be better represented than through comedy? Although the man deserves to be poked fun at, his deplorable actions and the consequences deserve proper representation, which Waititi diligently provides alongside his signature humour; a well-balanced movie overall that declares that Hitler still is, in fact, a twerp.