Described as “an anti-hate satire” and based very loosely on Christine Leunens' novel Caging Skies, Taiki Waititi's latest movie depicts the growth of a young boy in Nazi Germany who seeks advice on how to become a tough man from his 'imaginary friend' - a highly eccentric version of Adolf Hitler. Jojo duly discovers that his mother works for the resistance and is hiding a teenage Jewish girl behind a secret wall in their home. Indoctrinated with irrational anti-semitism, he initially resists her charms, but soon becomes more forgiving and even starts to fall a little in love with her. At a time when Gestapo agents are actively searching for hidden Jews and deporting them en masse to the death camps, this is obviously a high risk friendship. We sense the end of the war is approaching as the Allied forces gradually close in, which only makes the extremism of Jojo's imaginary Hitler even more risible. Despite dwelling on one of the darkest periods and depicting one of the vilest figures in human history, Waititi's latest movie manages to tread the delicate line between caricature and tragic irony with great ease and masterful equilibrium.
This is no easy task, as successful black comedies are extremely rare. Recently, only Armando Ianucci's much more scabrous Death of Stalin has dared take a comparable approach to psychopathic tyrants. Jojo, played with wide-eyed innocence by Roman Griffin Davis, not only misses his deceased sister, but also his dad, who is absent fighting with the Whermacht in Italy. He and and his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, adding a degree of adult gravitas to the story) live in a small German town in which all the young dudes eagerly sign up for Hitler's youth corps. Together with his chubby and bespectacled friend Yorki (Archie Yates), they enthusiastically head off to youth camp where cherubic Aryan children evidently enjoy dressing up in Nazi regalia as they are led through a series of hilarious drills by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), their dissolute and intemperate Youth Leader, and his female counterpart, Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). To support their fascist ideology, his imaginary Hitler flounces around effeminately, making increasingly outlandish demands on his young protege. Arriving home from training one afternoon, Jojo hears noises upstairs and discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie from Leave No Trace) living in a cramped cubby-hole hidden behind the walls of his sister's bedroom. Although Jojo has been taught to despise all Jews, Elsa soon becomes a stand-in for his dead sister and he starts falling for her in his own pre-pubescent fashion. The absurd statements and thoughts about what Jojo should or should not do about his captive Jew make pointed jabs at Hitler's barbiturate-fueled insanity.
Waititi, who is Maori/Jewish, wrote the screenplay in 2011, between Boy and What We Do In The Shadows. When asked why he decided to play the role of Hitler, he replied "The answer's simple - what better 'fuck you' to the guy?" During his initial research, Waititi discovered that WWII Germany was very vibrant and fashionable and decided to avoid the approach of traditional war films that depicted it as dark, dreary, and decadent, instead presenting the town as a bucolic and celebratory place and dressing characters as stylishly as possible. Waititi has described the film as a love letter to his mother and single parents everywhere - "It wasn't until I was a grown up and I had kids of my own that I realized 'oh, these parent people, they make a lot of sacrifices, it's really hard raising a kid!'." He was attracted to the idea that everything seems happy and idyllic, while just underneath the surface "the third Reich is crumbling, and, you know, the dream is over."
Jojo dreams of fighting for his country and making his hero proud. His blind fanaticism is so extreme he imagines Hitler giving him advice, which unsurprisingly is not that helpful. After an unfortunate accident at the youth camp, Jojo spends more time at home and begins to see the thoughtful, self-assured, yet frightened Elsa is hardly the kind of monster he has been lead to believe. Waititi not only knows instinctively when to joke about Nazi fanaticism, but also to let the bleakness of WWII set in, embracing much deeper themes and emotions. Jojo initially sees his world through rose-tinted glasses, as he gleefully gives the Nazi salute to his fellow neighbours on a bright sunny day. All of the Nazi characters are heightened and exaggerated for comic relief from Captain Klenzendorf and Fraulein Rahm to Stephen Merchant's ruthless Gestapo agent Deertz. Waititi clearly takes great pleasure in making the nasty Nazis the butt of the joke, showing them saluting each other for even the simplest introduction, as well as swallowing wholesale whatever 'fake news' they are informed comes directly from Hitler himself. Once Jojo accepts Elsa sharing his home, the true ugliness of his world starts to emerge as Germany becomes increasingly desperate to defend itself.
At this point, Waititi backs down on the comedic aspects without ever entirely abandoning his decidedly off-kilter filter, allowing moments of shock to reminding his audience about the tragic cost of ignorance and blind faith. He uses the story of a boy's misguided fantasy to show just how easy it is to be manipulated into hating minorities and different religions when official propaganda drowns out all dissenting voices. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. switches the colour scheme from bright and saturated to cold and grey as the seasons pass to reflect this change in Jojo's state of mind. At the end of the day, he shows that compassion and love are eternal values still worth embracing in an increasingly unfair and brutal world, as long as we are able to realise the limitations of our own blinkered tunnel-vision first. The political parallels with modern times emerge clearly, without ever becoming too bunt or overstated.
Waititi anachronistically bookends his tale with The Beatles singing in German and David Bowie's German-language version of Heroes, managing to create something completely different - a weird and off-beat comedy that never disrespects its sensitive subject matter. His camp Hitler never entirely overpowers the rest of the cast, allowing the child performances to take center stage, making us laugh at times and shed tears at others. Given their youth, the comedic range and timing of the young leads is simply stunning. Waititi takes one of the most gruesome periods in human history and discovers both a sense of humour and compassionate beauty in its telling. He digs deep into the fanatical idiocy of the Nazism in a manner that is not simply amusing, but also sad and poignant, beautifully acted and highly sensitive. The movie is also expertly paced, moving rapidly from scene to scene, especially when the boys are at camp and when the war eventually arrives to their little town. He also knows when to slow down and linger, especially in the scenes when Jojo and Elsa collaborate on his book about Jews, Jojo and Yorki hug each other, and Captain Klenzendorf saves Jojo from being imprisoned by the Allies. The film glows brightly with a warmly iridescent sheen at such moments of shared humanity.
Hollywood has always relished poking fun at Hitler, even while WWII was still raging, from Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator to Mel Brooks' The Producers. Clearly also influenced by Wes Anderson's colour schemes and symmetrical framing, Waititi turns up the trademark Anderson twee barometer to eleven right from the get go. The fake Fuhrer has a goofy grin and prances about like a reject from a Dresden burlesque show in an over-the-top episode of Hogan's Heroes. Things settle down a bit when Elsa emerges from hiding, as she becomes the heart and soul of the movie and keeps it grounded. Jojo and Elsa strike up a guarded friendship despite the constant pestering of Hitler himself, not to mention the intrusions of Captain Klenzendorf and Fraulein Rahm, out-sized cartoon villains who seem to have studied every frame of Anderson's guide to broad acting.
It would be impossible to improve upon Waititi's casting. Davis is a fantastic actor with a bright future, carrying the narrative along with a surprisingly wide range of feelings, emotions, and actions. He combines great comedic timing with an innate ability to create great emotional chemistry with McKenzie, who displays the hardship her character has gone throughout her life, while also pointing out shallowness of Jojo's ideals. Johansson, Rockwell, and Wilson all shine as A list actors in supporting roles, while Merchant proves himself one of the best SS officer of all time. They all put in pitch perfect performances, somehow managing to get away with some ridiculously outlandish comments. Yates is especially affecting as Jojo's hapless friend Yorki and McKenzie inhabits her challenging role with visceral intestinal fortitude. Waititi's highly expressive physical movements make his character come alive, his comedic timing neatly revealing the absurd extent of Jojo's brainwashing, and allows himself a final scene in which he turns on Jojo, who comes to see through his idol's insanity.
Waititi has already established a working relationship with Rockwell and Johansson. Before Thor: Ragnarok, one of the more entertaining additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, came What We Do In The Shadows, a droll mockumentary that followed the lives of a group of Wellington vampires. Waititi played Korg in Thor: Ragnarok and Rockwell was Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2. Johansson appeared in Thor: Ragnarok (albeit as a recorded message), which Waititi also directed. Johansson and Rockwell also starred in Iron Man 2, while Johansson and Waititi worked together in Avengers: Endgame. Johansson's character is eventualy hung for circulating revolutionary leaflets, the same crime for which Korg was imprisoned in Thor: Ragnarok, but here Waititi himself plays the despotic leader that people are revolting against. Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s cinematography includes some exceptional compositions and the Elsa/Jojo relationship garners some genuine moments of pathos and warmth (something that the more clinical Anderson rarely manages to achieve). For a parable about Hitler youth with real bite, however, see Volker Schlöndorff's masterful The Tin Drum. Jojo Rabbit is much closer in spirit to Roberto Benigni's benign, but equally affecting Life Is Beautiful.
There is a surface-level audacity in Jojo Rabbit's repetitive wink to its central gimmick, recasting Hitler as an exopthalmic buffoon for maximum yucks. This is well-travelled territory, not just in the sub-genre at large, but also the character dynamic that lies at its core. Similar ground was covered in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Where Hands Touch. In adapting Leunens’ far darker novel, Waititi decided to add the imaginary element as a smokescreen to give the impression that Jojo Rabbit has something new to offer. While there are some undeniably hilarious moments inherent in this outlandish conceit (such as the throwaway line “A Jew?”/”Gesundheit”), Waititi has spoken about his struggle to get another actor to play the role of Hitler. “Most people really loved the script,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “I think it was a little difficult for people to figure out if it was a good career move, and I can fucking totally understand. Who really wants to see themselves as Adolf Hitler on a poster?”
There are a few moments of limited complexity, especially with Rosie who knows she has to play ball with the Nazis despite her personal beliefs, begrudgingly allowing her son to train with them, but unable to publicly show her repulsion, while subtly challenging his rapidly hateful worldview at home. Johansson is charming and funny in her lighter moments, convincing us that she is a real person in a film mostly populated by caricatures. As the braggadocious homosexual Nazi captain, Rockwell broadly recapitulates the comic shtick of the three other racists he has played in the past year. Waititi attempts to humanise him near the end in a way that breaks away from the simplistic framework of a movie that paints all Nazis as clumsy morons, but his film exists in such a colour-coded Andersonesque universe that the true horror of the war always seems far removed. Nonetheless, the movie won this year’s People’s Choice award at the Toronto Film Festival, a prize seen as a major predicator of Oscar success since the last seven winners have all either won or been nominated for the best picture Oscar (Slumdog Millionaire, Precious, 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech, Room, and Green Book). After the crowd-pleasing premiere, Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf claimed that Waititi is “legitimately breaking new ground,” although there were also a few detractors, with Justin Chang in The LA Times criticising it for being “terminally self-satisfied,” while A.A. Dowd described it as “the most twee Holocaust movie ever.”