Fervent Hitler Youth foot soldier Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) finds himself in a moral conundrum after discovering a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his house. Can he turn his back on Nazi idols – his imaginary friend, Adolf, included – and learn true compassion and humanity?
Nazi Germany has never been a deep well for cinematic comedy. Some contemporary films have stereotyped the evil of Hitler’s regime to near-caricature levels, and movies like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood celebrate fantastical violence against Nazis with a wry, knowing humour. But truly satirical black comedy is an arena many filmmakers (understandably) steer away from, due to the severity of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity. Taika Waititi, however, isn’t afraid to go to that place.
Waititi bases his film on the novel Caging Skies by Kiwi-Belgian author Christine Leunens, using the story of a 10-year-old Hitler Youth grappling with his morality to blend biting satire and buffoonish slapstick. A lot of this comedy carries over from Waititi’s other works. Early films used coy satire to analyse the dynamics of everyday life, while his later movies deal in more broad strokes of comedy (to equal hilarious effect). Similarly, Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit has many similarities to Mel Brooks’ The Producers – both films mix silliness with a serious look at the Nazi regime.
Waititi’s flamboyant directing and penchant for the slapstick helps shape a narrative coming from the perspective of a still-innocent child. His own role as Jojo’s imaginary friend Adolf is intriguing – he represents the broad childishness that has been driven out of Jojo by wartime and military training. It reminds us that Jojo is still a child in trying times and adds an innocence to the film that drags the tone away from its dark subject matter. The directing here is reminiscent of Wes Anderson – the opening sequence of Jojo getting ready to attend a Hitler Youth camp could have been lifted from Moonrise Kingdom. Sharp cuts and comedic montages help us to understand Jojo and the Nazi regime without condemning them. Trivialising this evil is risky, but Waititi uses this style to make us see ignorant hate goes beyond Nazism – an important lesson that we can all learn from.
Roman Griffin Davis, in the lead as Jojo Betzler, is charming and vulnerable. Across from him, Thomasin McKenzie offers sparkling depth to hideaway Elsa. The pair’s chemistry is undoubtedly compelling – but one of the strengths of Jojo Rabbit is that it doesn’t lean on the leads alone. Scarlett Johansson is mesmerising as Jojo’s mum Rosie, Sam Rockwell is ecstatically erratic as army captain Klenzendorf, and there are other strong turns from Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant. The supporting characters may be broadly caricatured, but the cast still nail their comedic briefs. The only acting let down is from Waititi himself – his imaginary Hitler is too buffoonish and lacks the sharpest satirical edge needed to make his jokes stick consistently.
Jojo Rabbit is a much-needed film in hateful times, and a reminder that comedy – and challenging ignorance – can help us deal with the darkest sides of humanity.
Sweet, satirical, and hilarious, Jojo Rabbit is near perfect. 8/10.