Yet while the film’s approach to World War II events is unsettling – and its comic coming-of-age story frequently outrageous – Waititi and his talented cast find tenderness and humanity in the material, making this a period piece that couldn’t be timelier. The film’s central conceit is certainly a headline-grabber – kid receives counsel from his imaginary friend, who just happens to be Adolf Hitler. But while that aspect of the story has been placed front-and-centre in the film’s early marketing materials – and dominates the movie’s opening scenes – JoJo Rabbit is about much more than that, with a very different friendship at the heart of proceedings.
Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis plays Jojo Betzler, a 10-year-old boy who steadfastly believes everything he is told by the Nazi Party, and who devotes all his strength and energy to the savior of Germany, Adolf Hitler. Indeed, Jojo is so indoctrinated that it takes him three weeks to get over the fact that his grandfather wasn’t blond.
Jojo also speaks to imaginary Hitler in times of need, with this fey, petulant caricature of the Fuhrer mentoring the boy, and offering what Adolf assures Jojo is “really good advice.” But what the audience can see is actually really terrible guidance, and pretty much the opposite of what Jojo should be doing.
Their interplay is amusing, and with Waititi himself playing the Fuhrer, it’s a suitably ridiculous take on a man whom he clearly seeks to mock, in much the same way Charlie Chaplin ridiculed the dictator in The Great Dictator. But it’s also something of a one-joke scenario, and when that novelty wears off, the movie wisely moves on to more serious matters.
Watch the latest trailer for Jojo Rabbit below:
Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is working for the Resistance, and hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa in the walls of their home. When Jojo discovers her existence, he initially sees an opportunity to impress his hero by turning Elsa in. But fearing that would point the finger of suspicion at his mother, Jojo comes up with an alternate plan – to interrogate Elsa in service of discovering everything he can about the Jews, and to put that information in a book for the Fuhrer.
So begins a tense, complex, and at times hilarious series of exchanges between the pair. Elsa – played with great emotional intelligence by Thomasin McKenzie – initially plays up to the horrible stereotypes that Jojo has been taught about the Jews, in part to scare him. But she then starts to turn the tables, subtly undermining those notions, edging the boy towards the many contradictions, falsehoods, and outright lies he’s been told, then letting him do the rest. And in the process helping Jojo to locate not only the truth, but also his own compassion and humanity.
It isn’t the first time Taika Waititi has tackled such themes. Most of his films – from Eagle vs Shark and Boy to What We Do In the Shadows and Hunt For the Wilderpeople – have featured messages about acceptance and tolerance. But it rings particularly true in this scenario. At a time when fascism and extremism are seemingly growing in popularity all over the globe, it’s a story that’s as much about now as it is 1945.
Yet while the film is filled with serious moments, there are also just as many laughs. In the hilarious opening stretch, Jojo spends the weekend at a Hitler Youth training camp, where Sam Rockwell plays disillusioned officer Captain Klenzendorf, who is struggling to come to terms with Germany’s impending defeat.
Captain K lost an eye in what he calls “Operation Screw-Up” and resents training kids rather than being on the frontline, his cynicism the source of some of the film’s best lines (though the film could probably have done without his Nazi becoming one of the heroes of the piece). Rebel Wilson, meanwhile, is a fine foil as his assistant Fraulein Rahm, a compulsive liar who claims to have birthed 18 Aryans for Germany, and remains unpleasant from beginning to end.
But it’s another newcomer who generates the biggest laughs. Archie Yates plays Yorki – Jojo’s best friend – and his comic timing and earnest delivery make you long for the youngster to be onscreen throughout. Indeed, the scenes that Jojo and Yorki share are maybe the movie’s most heartbreaking, as they are just two normal little boys, caught up in the madness, and struggling to make sense of a world that’s so filled with hate and injustice. Parallels with the kids of today are very clear, and contribute to Jojo Rabbit being so deeply affecting.
Taika Waititi will also soon be seen in The Mandalorian. Check out what he told us about that below: