Look, I just want to put it out there; Taika Waititi is brilliant. Seriously. His recent film, Jojo Rabbit, is a heckin’ masterpiece of modern cinema, and I’m here to tell you why.
The New Zealand actor/director/comedian (the man wears many hats) may be familiar to you from 2014 film What We Do in the Shadows or, more recently as the character Korg in Thor: Ragnarok. His most recent film, which he also directed and produced, has him playing a fanciful – and entirely imaginary – version of Adolf Hitler, in the mind of ten year old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, who is beautifully portrayed by newcomer Roman Griffin Davis. The film is based on Christine Leunens’ book, Caging Skies, but I confess I had neither heard of the book prior to watching this film, and nor have I read it.
The film is set in the later stages of WWII, in Nazi Germany. Living with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), Jojo is a member of Hitler Youth, and a firm believer that not only is Hitler a faultless hero, but that Germany is superior in every way to the rest of the world. At the tender age of ten, he is something of a fanatic; a trait made possible by Nazi propaganda and the overall fear that pervades every aspect of a war torn country. He is given the nickname Jojo Rabbit when, during his attendance at the Hitler Youth training camp, he fails to kill a rabbit. He is taunted by the other Hitler Young members afterwards, and cruelly given the nickname intended to mock him.
As the film progresses, Jojo discovers that his mother is hiding Elsa, a young Jewish girl, (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic; a revelation that both angers and intrigues him. It speaks to the widespread misinformation rampant during WWII that such a young boy would feel so passionately about such a subject, and that very fact is utilised to great effect in the film. It is easy to believe Jojo as the unwavering believer even at such a young age, because we know that Anti-semitism, like all forms of racism, is a learned behaviour. Yet unlike the older members of Hitler Youth who seem to delight in cruelty, Jojo is guilty only of having faith in the wrong person. Beneath his outward bravado and attempts to be tough, lies the heart of a sensitive and thoughtful ten year old.
I have to tip my hat to the supporting cast here too; Thomasin McKenzie was a delight, and her character was both well developed and well acted. The character’s bravado offset against her quiet fragility, and her relationship with Jojo was one of the best parts of the movie for me, not least because it formed a large part of the plot. But in terms of supporting characters, my uncontested favourite was one-eyed German soldier, Captain Klenzendorf, who was played by the fantastic (and in my opinion, highly underrated) Sam Rockwell. His character was a kind of mentor/leader for the youth army, and was of a seemingly more friendly disposition. In honesty, I probably could have done without Rebel Wilson’s minor contribution to the film, as I felt it added nothing, but aside from that, I can find no fault in the supporting cast.
Jojo Rabbit was an interesting take on some tough subject matter, and it is a rare person who can create a film about the war that elicits both laughter and tears from the audience, but therein lies the genius of Taika Waititi. His own portrayal of Adolf Hitler is unlike anything we would have seen on screen before, but the role he plays is a small (in terms of screen time), yet effective one. Supported by an excellent cast, he has made a film that has heart, and an underlying sweetness that takes the edge off the less shiny aspects of the plot. Whether that was his intention, I am unsure. All I can say is that I personally found that the movie managed a good balance between humour and poignancy, and I highly recommend it.