Taika Waititi directs and is an imaginary Hitler in his coming-of-age/Nazi Germany satire Jojo Rabbit
Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis (Johannes “Jojo Rabbit” Betzler), Thomasin McKenzie (Elsa Korr), Scarlett Johansson (Rosie Betzler), Taika Waititi (Adolf Hitler), Sam Rockwell (Captain Klenzendorf), Rebel Wilson (Fraulain Rahm), Alfie Allen (Lt Finkel), Stephen Merchant (Deertz), Archie Yates (Yorki)
A comedy set in Nazi Germany? Well if there is one thing you need to get right, it’s the tone. Taika Waititi’s comedy about a boy with an imaginary friend who just happens to be a version of Adolf Hitler more or less does so – although I’d argue it’s less a comedy and more of a terrifying condemnation of the horrific powers of indoctrination. But that sells a lot less well in trailers doesn’t it?
Set in late 1944, the boy in question is Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis – a revelatory performance) a ten-year old who wants to be a passionate Nazi but is undone by his own underlying sweetness. Not that it stops him believing everything he’s told by the regime and its theories around Jews, re-enforced by his imaginary best friend, a childishly stroppy version of Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself). Nicknamed Jojo Rabbit after his failure to kill a rabbit on a Hitler Youth indoctrination camp, then later blowing himself with a grenade meaning he can no longer qualify for military service, Jojo sees his dreams of becoming the ultimate Aryan fading away. Things become even more conflicted when he discovers his secretly anti-Nazi mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a teenage Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls of his late sister’s bedroom.
Waititi’s film returns to his affectionate roots of coming-of-age stories but in an entirely different setting – here the child must grow up by learning to reject the vile ideologies that have been hammered into him by the system. Waititi shoots the entire film from the perspective of the child’s view of the world, meaning the horrors of the war are kept largely at a distance from us (until a sudden and terrible event brings them overwhelmingly into frame). The Nazi world around Jojo looks like some glorious Enid Blyton summer, the colour of which only gradually disappears from the film as event proceed. It’s a neat visual way of capturing the child’s innocence.
This also means many of the characters are seen from Jojo’s perspective. Most obviously Adolf Hitler (the imaginary one), played with gleeful comic gusto by Waititi, is far from the actual dictator but is a sort of ten-year-old’s idea of what he might be like, childish, oddly innocent in places, prone to strops – but also has enough darkness in him (which emerges more and more as the film goes on) to show that he is still part of the hateful ideology the real Hitler promoted. Similarly, Jojo’s first impression of Elsa is shot and framed like some sort of creepy horror film – matching the ideas that have been indoctrinated into him by the regime that the Jews are a near-Satanic threat.
That indoctrination is a big part of the film’s primary themes. An early sequence at a Hitler Youth camp is less funny – even if it does have moments of brash comedy and some good jokes – more horrifying for the mantra of violence, race hate and slaughter that the regime is preaching almost every second that its representatives appear on screen. It’s actually chilling seeing this group of impressionable kids succumbing so completely to the excitement of this relentless onslaught of propaganda. The passion that the Nazis inspire is wonderfully caught by Waititi in the credits, with Leni Reifenstahl footage beautifully recut to the Beatles singing in German – it’s hard to miss the parallels. (The film makes some neat use of modern music, with David Bowie also popping up).
Jojo however is still a sweet, kind, generous boy under the surface – however much he has swallowed the constant message from his government that he should aspire to being a cold eyed killer. Waititi’s message is that there is still hope in the roots of next generation, however much the current generation does it’s best to mess that up. It’s something that his mother – exquisitely played by an Oscar-nominated Scarlett Johansson with a wonderful sense of playfulness hiding an intense sadness – clings to desperately, knowing the sweet boy she loves is still largely there, however twisted he is by a cruel ideology.
It’s the relationship with Elsa that helps bring that out, with Thomasin McKenzie wonderful as an initially hostile young girl, determined to never be a victim, who softens and thaws as she senses the kindness in this boy. Her hiding is all part of Rosie’s own defiance of the regime and its oppression, the horrors of which – from random searches to executions – slowly begin to creep into the film.
If there is a problem with the film, it is that the darker elements of this film – and there are many – often play a little awkwardly against the more comedic and even farcical elements. Waititi as an actor gets the tone right – but others, particularly Rebel Wilson as an oppressive Nazi – head too far into unfunny, tonally flat farce. Sam Rockwell does a decent job as a German army officer, even if his obvious bitterness for the war effort and contempt for Nazism makes him an unlikely candidate to be running an indoctrination camp, but even he veers sometimes too far onto the side of flat farce. Other than Waititi, only Stephen Merchant as an officious Nazi official – including a running joke of continuous Heil Hitler greetings – gets the balance right between comedy and darkness.
It’s a balance the film doesn’t always make very successfully – but it’s balanced by the warmth that it feels for Jojo, the excellence of Griffin Davis and McKenzie’s performances, and the moments of genuine shock and trauma that surprise the viewers and head the film openly into very darker territory. Less a comedy and more a plea to allow children to be children, not victims of the views and desires of adults, it’s a thought provoking film.