Film review: Jojo Rabbit (2019), written and directed by Taika Waititi
tl;dr: Nazi fanboy, 10, befriends hideaway Jewish girl, 17, much to the dismay of his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler.
Ten-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a lives with his mother (Scarlett Johansson) in a town somewhere in Nazi Germany. It’s towards the end of the Second World War and the Third Reich is crumbling around them. This does not deter young Jojo. He’s such an ardent Nazi supporter and Hitler fanboy that he not only joins the Hitler Youth with his friend Yorki (Archie Yates), but he has Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) as an imaginary friend.
After an injury at a Hitler Youth camp, Jojo has to stay home from school. One day he hears a noise and discovers a teenager called Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in the wall of his dead sister’s bedroom upstairs. There’s only one problem: Elsa is Jewish. This poses a dilemma for young Jojo, but since he wants to write a book about the “typical Jew” maybe she could help him? Who knows the secrets of the Jews better than one of their own?
Jojo Rabbit is a pitch black comedy satire loosely based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, which isn’t anywhere near a satire. Only the concept of “ardent young Nazi supporter discovers a young Jewish girl hiding in his house” and the characters names seem to be in common from what I can tell by looking at reviews of the book. Johannes of the book appears to be older and more of a narcissist, whereas Jojo of the film is … well, he’s just a child who, despite telling himself otherwise, lacks the killer instinct.
Having Hitler as an imaginary friend is pretty out there, but considering Jojo idolises Hitler – despite clearly knowing nothing about him – it kind of makes sense. Is the portrayal accurate with regards to the real person? Of course not, this is Hitler as imagined by a child with a wild imagination and rose-tinted goggles. It’s not meant to be accurate. Is it funny? Yes, but I enjoy Taika Waititi’s sense of humour (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, Wellington Paranormal, Thor: Ragnarok, etc.) and the idea that Hitler is being portrayed as a more or less laughably ridiculous thoughtform by a non-white Jewish man amuses me.
This film does not show Nazis in a good light, to put it mildly. The Nazi characters we spend the most time with are all pretty zany. At the local Hitler Youth headquarters we find Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) with sidekicks Finkel (Alfie Allen) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson), the latter bragging that she’s already given birth to 15 pure-blooded Aryan children. They’re realising where the war is heading, and are mostly going through the motions. They don’t really seem to care anymore, not even about keeping up appearances. Stephen Merchant as a Gestapo officer is unnerving, and sort of echoes Herr Flick from ‘Allo ‘Allo.
The young actors portraying the two boys are great. At the beginning of the film the two friends are both naive and want to do their best for the country, however misguided that may be. After Jojo has to stay home and the boys spend more time apart we get the contrast between the still naive Jojo, who’s thoroughly drunk the Nazi Kool-Aid, and the sweet Yorki, who has had to grow up rather quickly when faced with actual, not pretend, warfare. Seems like Waititi is good at getting the best out of the child actors he’s directing!
Thomasin McKenzie also deserves a mention, because she’s another excellent young actor. Elsa, simply by being there, can show Jojo that Jewish people are perfectly normal people – nothing like the nasty goblin-like caricatures they’ve been made out to be in Nazi propaganda.
The film’s heart is Rosie, Jojo’s mother. Her husband is away from home, and her only living child is a boy who idolises a regime she despises. But she doesn’t try to stop him because he obviously feels lonely and wants to belong somewhere. What she can do is to instill a sense of fairness and kindness in him, because she knows he’s really not a bad kid deep down. Plus, let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to let your child run with it to avoid getting on the Gestapo’s radar. My only question about Johanssen’s performance is why does her accent kind of sound more French than German?
Before I saw the film the first time I heard there was a moment where tissues are recommended. Your mileage may vary. I didn’t need them the first time, and the second time I thought the moment in question was so heavily foreshadowed that it shouldn’t have come as any kind of surprise. Don’t get me wrong, it’s heartbreaking, but it just didn’t hit me like I thought it might.
Jojo Rabbit is a film that’s often darkly hilarious, sometimes silly, has a fair few laugh-out-loud moments, and at the same time also tackles some very heavy subjects in all seriousness but without it feeling like a tone clash. On the one hand it’s a really funny comedy, and on the other it’s a serious film about growing up and choosing to do the right thing. It feels as if this combination shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. It’s positively absurd at times, and at others it manages to be either sweet, bone-chilling, hopeful, or devastating, but it’s always emotionally honest.
5 out of 5 roasted unicorn heads.