New Zealand native Taika Waititi isn’t one to avoid taking risks. From writing episodes of beloved wacky comedy Flight of the Conchords, to directing/starring in vampiric mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows and taking on Thor for Thor: Ragnarok, it’s clear that Taika likes a challenge. With a background in making people laugh, comedy is what he knows best, so who better to take on the biggest challenge – of making Hitler funny. But does he succeed?
Based on Christine Leunen‘s book Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit is set during the later stages of World War II, when we’re introduced to Johannes Betzler, affectionately known as Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10 year-old boy living in Nazi Germany with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Jojo and best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) are two members of the Hitler Youth Army and are very passionate about all things Hitler, so much so that Jojo’s imaginary friend is the man himself, played by Waititi. Jojo and Hitler have frequent discussions about what it means to be a Nazi and how if Jojo does everything Hitler says, one day he’ll be a great Nazi leader too.
After being injured during Youth Camp training, Jojo is advised to stay at home and is given the job of pasting propaganda posters up around his town, while collecting scrap metal for recycling. However, Jojo’s efforts to raise his family up the Nazi ranks are scuppered after he finds Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a young Jewish girl, living in the loft, hidden there by his mother Rosie. Brought up to believe that Jews are the enemy, Jojo threatens to report Elsa to Gestapo captain Deertz (Stephen Merchant) and his goons, but in doing so he’ll be reporting on his own mother. Desperate to impress Hitler, both real and imaginary, Jojo is stuck, and as he and Elsa get to know each other better he soon realises that his hero may not be all that right or great after all.
Despite (or perhaps supported by) the star-packed cast – including Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen – Griffin Davis is the standout. Now nominated for a Golden Globe, it’s well deserved; Roman’s sweet face carries every emotion Jojo feels and sits comfortably in a neutral innocence. He’s wide-eyed, fearful, and eager to impress everyone, to show just how dedicated he is to the cause. This brainwashed passion comes across best during his conversations with the imagined Hitler, like a mustachioed Drop Dead Fred. Waititi’s Hilter is silly, cheeky and encourages Jojo’s devotion to him. Lacking a father figure, Jojo finds a suitable replacement in his imagination, believing Hitler really does want the best for him. But despite his warmth and friendliness towards the young boy, the facade quickly slips when Jojo’s left heartbroken and alone, with only Hitler to rub his face in his loneliness. Griffin Davis carries the story incredibly well and our hearts break with him as he realises the truth of his situation. Truly a star in the making.
So, back to our opening question – does Taika succeed in making Hitler funny? Both yes and no. While I’ve seen other reviews and Twitter takes exclaim that Jojo Rabbit isn’t funny, that it’s highly offensive, I (personally) don’t see it that way. I recognised throughout the film that I was watching a satire about the Nazi regime, that Hitler was a ridiculous maniac. The film sets out from the start that these are people to laugh at, from the gleeful games played out at the Camp, to Merchant’s Deertz’s inability to go 10 seconds without hailing the Fuhrer. Waititi constantly undermines the pomp and pageantry of the Nazi party, their absurd rules and beliefs and makes it very clear that these are not people to idolise, something our small hero understands in his own time. While others may not see it that way, enjoying the film as a piece of witty satire is a fine way to spend two hours.
Sweet, tender and almost educational (with the albeit daft glimpses into Hitler Youth life), this is a film that’ll split audiences – and that’s okay. We see it as a brilliant mix of the happy and the sad, with a kicking soundtrack (David Bowie and The Beatles singing in German) to boot. I’m hoping Jojo Rabbit will leave you dancing throughout the end credits like it did us.