Joining the likes of ‘The Producers’ and ‘The Great Dictator’, ‘Jojo Rabbit’ is that rarefied comedy that decides to tackle Hitler and the Nazi’s. Despite it being a dangerously easy topic to make a wrong step with, director Taika Waititi has created another film that perfectly walks the line between comedy and emotion without ever causing offence in the wrong way.
Young Jojo is a 10-year-old member of the Hitler Youth who is “massively into swastikas” and a devout worshipper of Adolf Hitler (and in 1940’s Germany, who wasn’t; Hitler’s use of propaganda made it very difficult for innocent children to see otherwise). After he discovers his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl in the walls of their home, he’ll slowly start to question his loyalty, his beliefs and his feelings. All of this also occurs while he enjoys interventions from his imaginary friend, a fanciful perception of Adolf Hitler.
On the surface, this premise sounds ripe for causing offence but the main point to say about the film is that its treatment of Nazi’s and the atrocities they caused is never once the joke. Jokes are always at the Nazi’s expense, and though imaginary Hitler is often seen laughing and joking with Jojo, it should be remembered that this is a 10-year-old’s perception of Hitler. Just as a modern 10-year-old would have Batman as his fanciful best friend, so too could a 1940’s Hitler Youth member idolise and befriend Hitler, and that’s what this film is highlighting.
The cast that Taika has assembled here is unbelievable. In the title role of Jojo is Roman Griffin Davis, a superb young actor making his feature debut. His emotional maturity in the role is astonishing, and at only 12 is already setting himself up to be a bright future talent. Starring opposite him is Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, the girl hiding in Jojo’s home. She shares as much talent and emotion as Roman, and the two of them on screen together present the most emotionally rich moments of the film. Another young cast member is Archie Yates, who plays Jojo’s hilariously adorable best friend Yorki.
The film then stars Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother, Sam Rockwell as the leader of the Hitler Youth camp, Stephen Merchant as a Gestapo agent (with a German/Cornish accent…) and Rebel Wilson as an instructor at the Hitler Youth camp.
Oh, and Taika Waititi himself plays Hitler. And he is superb. In the opening scene of the film he is hysterical, playing a bombastic and ridiculously caricatured fantasy of the leader. However, by the end he is utterly evil and brutish, and this was the right creative decision. At a certain point, Hitler can’t be the joke anymore and it proves Taika’s maturity as a filmmaker that he understood that.
As a film, Jojo Rabbit is as hilarious as it is cuttingly brutal. The tone of the film may upset and even offend some people, shifting from hilarity to dark emotional moments very quickly. However, Waititi handles the serious drama as well as he handles the comedy and the end result is staggering, with the humour only helping to enhance the tragedy.
In case all this hasn’t sold you, it should also be pointed out that the film is aesthetically beautiful. Shot on location in Prague, the film has a wonderful of-era feel to it, with amazing set design and costume work, and the brilliant score by Michael Giacchino uses Bavarian marches to help transport the audience into the world. It’s the highest compliment to say that this film is very reminiscent of the films of Wes Anderson, particularly ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ and ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, with some cinematography choices appearing as though they were directly lifted from the two.
Overall, Jojo Rabbit is an absolutely triumphant satire that is dripping with tragic cultural relevance. With an amazing cast and a heart-warming message at the root of the story, it’s a comedy that (like most great comedies) doesn’t always try for a cheap gag and isn’t afraid to be serious when it’s required. Much like Taika’s other work (‘Boy’, ‘Hunt For The Wilderpeople’) it’s a beautiful film that will make you laugh as much as you cry.