Taika Waititi’s latest film, Jojo Rabbit, is a deeply affecting piece, a beautiful treatise about war, the triumph of love over hate, the power of tolerance and acceptance, and the importance of knowing how to tie your shoelaces.
Ten year old Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is just like any other pre-adolescent boy his age. Well, any pre-adolescent boy who happens to live in Nazi Germany towards the end of World War II: Jojo is a devoted member of the Hitler Youth. He lives with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who looks after him all by herself, as his father went missing two years earlier while fighting overseas. He also has an imaginary friend: a comedic, idiotic version of Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), who eats roast unicorn and jumps out of windows.
Jojo learns that his mother isn’t as ardent a supporter of the regime as he is, as he discovers that she’s been harbouring a Jewish refugee, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), who knew his late sister, and has been living in the eaves of the house. Jojo realises he can’t turn Elsa over to the authorities, as it will get his mother into trouble, so he agrees to keep her presence a secret, on the condition that she teaches him all about the Jews, in order to learn their secrets and build up a dossier. The pair build an unlikely friendship, against all the odds, as the end of the war moves ever closer to Jojo’s doorstep.
Jojo Rabbit is a very loose adaptation of Christine Leunens‘ novel Caging Skies, which is rather a bleak and cold work compared to what’s actually ended up on the screen. Waititi joked during the Q&A following a screening of the movie at Fantastic Fest that he’d read about half of the book before writing the script, and the film actually ends at what would roughly be the halfway point in Caging Skies. If Waititi had been slavishly faithful to the manuscript, it would be an unusually dark and unremitting piece in comparison to the rest of his output, so he’s taken the core of the tale, and given it a trademark lighter spin, finding humour in what is typically serious subject matter.
Waititi has been candid about having faced prejudice when growing up as a Māori Jew, and with his grandfather having fought in World War II he’s imbued the tale with his own personality, moulding it to tell a very personal story which – while by no means autobiographical – is certainly very much informed by his own experiences, and gives him the perfect canvas on which to express his point of view and legitimate concerns about the state of the world today, given the resurgence of right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism. As such, it’s a very timely film, but the message of understanding and acceptance is a timeless one, and it’s sad that Jojo Rabbit has ended up being so pertinent due to where society seems to have been heading.
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Sometimes, an effective weapon against injustice or evil can be to diminish it with ridicule and laughter, as evidenced by Charlie Chaplin’s portrayal of Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator, which was his attempt to attack Nazi Germany by sending up the Führer. It seems appropriate that Waititi should not only mock Hitler with his script, but also by playing the part himself, as having a Jewish actor taking on the part makes all of the jabs feel even more pointed; this imaginary Hitler is portrayed as such a childish buffoon, and Waititi excels in the role, to the extent that when some of Hitler’s actual personality starts to bleed in, the contrast in this sudden shift makes it all the more shocking when it happens.
Although not featured heavily in the movie, Hitler naturally casts a long shadow over proceedings, particularly as he’s seen by Jojo as a substitute father figure – it’s unsurprising, given that Nazi Germany was described as the Fatherland, and Jojo so badly wants to impress Hitler so that he can then act in loco parentis where Jojo is concerned. The deification and fetishising of Hitler is beautifully satirised by Waititi, who plays The Beatles singing ‘Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand’ over re-edited footage of him being screamed at by adoring crowds, making it feel like the arrival of Beatlemania when the Fab Four first landed in New York back in February 1964; it has the same parodic effect as the wartime newsreel footage of marching Nazis recut to ‘The Lambeth Walk’.
In the absence of Jojo’s actual father, it’s up to Rosie to effectively play the role of both parents, trying to keep the household together while also trying to reach the real Jojo beneath all the indoctrination of the Nazi regime, which has robbed him of his childhood. Rosie is a good person in a bad world, and endeavours to impress upon Jojo the value to be found in embracing life, through things like dancing and falling in love, rather than giving yourself over to hatred and dislike of the unlike. Johansson is a pure joy as Rosie, and has a real lightness of touch, making Rosie feel like a fully fleshed out individual. A running motif of her trying to teach Jojo how to tie his shoelaces culminates in two highly emotional sequences: one utterly heartbreaking, the other totally joyous.
Waititi has managed to assemble an outstanding and eclectic cast here, including Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf (or ‘Captain K’), a demoralised and heavily drinking German officer who’s been demoted from frontline combat to training the Hitler Youth; Klenzendorf has a rather flamboyant idea about uniform designs, and a very close relationship with his subordinate, Freddy Finkel (Alfie Allen). Rockwell always manages to elevate every role he plays, and he hits every comedy beat here flawlessly. Also distinguishing themselves are Stephen Merchant as Deertz, a Gestapo agent (who has more than an air of Herr Flick from ‘Allo ‘Allo about him, more in terms of physicality than performance), and Rebel Wilson as Fräulein Rahm, a fanatical Hitler Youth instructor.
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However, the biggest plaudits should be reserved for Griffin Davis and McKenzie, as Jojo and Elsa are the very heart of the movie, and its success or failure hangs very much on how well they’re brought to life; thankfully, both actors acquit themselves perfectly, and are an endearing pairing, playing off each other beautifully throughout. Griffin Davis in particular has the unenviable task of having to portray a young boy tainted heavily by state propaganda, who still has to be likeable to the audience, and it’s a delicate line which he manages to walk with seemingly consummate ease. McKenzie shows us the vulnerability and fear which underlies the bravado exterior of Elsa, showing layers to the character, particularly when she starts to let her guard drop around Jojo, even though she knows he despises her for what – rather than who – she is.
Touching, funny, moving, poignant and thought-provoking in equal measure, Jojo Rabbit could prove to be one of the best movies of the year. Make sure you get to see this film, and more than once if possible. Waititi shows that he can still make perfect small movies, as well as big Hollywood blockbusters like Thor: Ragnarok, and his stock deserves to continue rising after delivering such a gem as this.