Starring Roman Griffin, Davis Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant. Directed by Taika Waititi.
The post-franchise cool-off is a long-held tradition in filmmaking circles. You come off your great big blockbuster and need a little palette cleanser. For Joss Whedon it was Much Ado About Nothing, for Rian Johnson it was Knives Out, and For JJ Abrams Super 8. But, for the man who made the most bonkers, colourful, funny film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Thor: Ragnarok, the style icon himself Taika Waititi has decided to set his sights on an anti-hate satire.
The film, adapted from Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies, follows ten-year-old Johannes ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Betzler, a fanatic member of the Hitler Youth, who – following a mishap involving a grenade – finds himself stuck in an office role, when he discovers his mother is harbouring a Jewish girl, which doesn’t go over well with his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler.
Waititi pulls in quad-work here: producing, directing, writing and acting in the film. Fantastically, he manages to bring his usual brand of comedy, and demonstrates his ability to show real heart. Jojo Rabbit at times feels much more like a companion piece to his 2010 film Boy as well as Hunt for the Wilderpeople. In a way, Jojo could be seen as the third embodiment of the boy looking for a dad that Boy and Wilderpeople’s Ricky Baker both encapsulated.
With his writing, Waititi manages to compliment his own directing style, knowing what can be frantic and what can benefit from being more staid. There are elements that reference horror films, slapstick comedy, and of course the out-and-out horror that comes from a war film. At times, his work with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr manages to create postcard images from the horrors and empty streets.
There’s an eye for fun details in the film as well; not just that most of Hitler’s dialogue is based solely on Jojo’s own knowledge, but in the details of the world. People seem happy in Germany, but below the surface, you can see the desperation and the horror unfolding. For his own work, Waititi’s comical Hitler is less the man in the bunker and more a stand-in for Jojo’s own feelings of needing a father.
It is a film, then, about connection. Jojo’s yearning to belong is what drives the film, fanatically screaming he wants to kill jews, but in reality, is unable to kill a rabbit. Hitler, therefore, is less about being his desire to serve the dictator but to find a stand-in for his own MIA father. Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis carries the film on his shoulders with ease, his likeable sensitivity makes him an absolute star on the rise. He has not only the innocence to pull off the role but the ability to navigate the films trickier sequences.
The supporting cast are all stellar: for his worth, Sam Rockwell as a boozed-up Captain who takes on a vague mentor-role seems somewhat conflicted in what Waititi wants to say, but we’re left at peace with the fantastic work Rockwell has been doing lately. Thomas McKenzie’s sensitive portrayal of the Jewish girl Elsa does a great job of showing the toll that this entire thing has on a young woman nearing adulthood in a world of hate. Meanwhile Scarlett Johansson reminds us that – despite her often ignorant comments, perchant for trans-facing and whitewashing – she is a great acting talent, and in the role of Rosie, Jojo’s rebellious mother, she shows a sensitivity she hasn’t really be able to portray since she was looking longingly at Bill Murray in Japan all those years ago.
The film does have flaws though; it fails to examine some of the darker elements as fully as it could, including a climax that shies away from certain horrific elements. In this way, it falls into the problem that Life is Beautiful, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and even the much spoken of The Day the Clown Cried fall into – the horrors of Nazi Germany – no matter how much you lampoon it – is too horrid for words.
Though a lot of this could be down to it being from the perspective of Jojo himself, at ten years old he believes jews are horned telepaths who eat human flesh. It’s interesting that Hitler embodies what he misses in his father, and that as Jojo pulls from him Hitler himself grows to be more nasty, more mean spirited. There are the faintest hints that perhaps Jojo is compensating for things he already knows to be true – that his father is probably dead, and he’s probably on the losing side of history.
Even so, there are deep belly laughs mainly thanks to Waititi’s role and Archie Yates as Jojo’s friend Yorki, as well as genuinely funny moments like the extended “Heil Hitler” greetings that occur. But, when the film wants to hit you in the emotions it does it perfectly – as Elsa herself states: “You’re not a Nazi, you’re a little boy who likes to dress up and belong to a gang”.
In these darker days we live through, with the rise of Alt-Right and talk of anti-semitism, a film that basically says “we’re all one people” is not a bad thing, and when Waititi is the one offering the hand of sensitivity, it’s one you want to take.