Making Fun of Hitler: A Review of Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit
In Jojo Rabbit, a 10-year-old self-professed Nazi in the Hitler Youth program during World War 2 gets the shock of his life when he discovers that his mother is hiding a Jew in their house. When you’re such a huge fan of the Führer that you have a poster of him in your room and even have imaginary conversations with the man himself, what do you do?
That’s the premise of the latest film from Taika Waititi, who burst into the consciousness of mainstream audiences when he helmed the Marvel megahit Thor: Ragnarok. Jojo Rabbit, which is based upon the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunen, assembles a talented cast of Hollywood A-listers, including Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, and Scarlett Johansson (who earned a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance here). The real stars, however, are newcomers Roman Griffin Davis, who plays Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, and Thomasin Mackenzie as the Jewish girl Elsa.
World War 2 is an endless source of rich, cinema-ready stories, but there hasn’t been anything quite like Jojo Rabbit, which, in itself, is reason enough to hightail it to the nearest theater. But how writer-director Waititi fashions the story, with equal parts humor, wit, and tenderness, is its greatest strength.
True, this isn’t the first time filmmakers took the comedic route in a tale set during the serious-as-a-heart-attack World War 2 (see: Inglorious Basterds, Life is Beautiful, My Führer, Top Secret! and many others), but how many have had an imaginary Hitler prancing around in a forest, smirking underwater in a pool with pre-pubescent young boys on the verge of drowning, and feasting on the roasted head of a unicorn?
Apart from the Nazi leader, the movie is populated by a slew of characters that are so vivid they practicallly jump off the screen. The youth camp is run by the sexually ambiguous, one-eyed Captain Klenzendorf (a terrific Rockwell), who is dejected and bitter because his injury prevents him from fighting in the frontlines. Mackenzie as the young Elsa is spunky and tough, but shows a softer side later on when she develops a connection with Jojo. His friend Yorkie, played by delightful newcomer Archie Yates, also deserves special mention.
Waititi himself plays Hitler, or a version of him living inside of Jojo's head. It's always a risk to even even mention the Nazi leader's name, but Waititi, who is part-Jewish, plays him as the bumbling, insecure little man that he likely really was.
Johansson almost steals the movie as Jojo’s mother, who we later find out is involved in the resistance but is always smiling and effervescent whenever we see her onscreen. Shedding off every other character she has recently played (*cough* Black Widow *cough*), here she is luminous and lovable, a literal mother figure indulging her son's fascist tendencies but ultimately shielding him from the true horrors of the Nazi movement.
And then there’s Jojo himself. It’s established that his intense love for Hitler was developed at an early age. “He’s a fanatic,” his mother tells Elsa. “It took him three weeks to get over the fact that his grandfather wasn’t blond.” Despite his initial pronouncements of feverish loyalty to the Nazis, his connection with Elsa allows him to discover truths about the party he loves so much. Our hero is then forced to grow up much faster than a regular 10-year-old boy. Of course, war tends to have that effect on children.
Pay close enough attention and you can glean some pretty important clues from the film’s imagery that foreshadows later events. Waititi’s direction is intutive and sharp; the film is a comedy, but he manages to also make it earnest and warm. There are lessons to be learned about loyalty, sacrifice, and love, and while you can sort of see it coming in the end, it’s how you get there that makes Jojo Rabbit a worthwhile watch.