It’s great to see a movie that lives up to its hype. Having won the People’s Choice Awards at this year’s TIFF festival, Taika Waititi’s genre bending WWII Nazi movie is an intelligent, extremely funny crowd-pleaser that you will genuinely love.
Set during the last year of the Nazi regime, the story revolves around ten year old would-be Nazi fanatic Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler, a boy who lives in an unnamed German town with his mother. Jojo wants nothing more than to be a star Hitler youth but his fear and awkwardness mark him as a coward amongst the older Hitler youth. His absent father has the reputation of being a deserter and perhaps this is why Jojo is so eager, brainwashed to the point that his imaginary friend and cheerleader is Hitler (played by Waititi himself). It’s a fairly playful trope somewhat similar to Christian Slater’s imaginary mentor Elvis in True Romance or Woody Allen’s Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam.
There’s been criticism of this film because of the humourous tone applied to the Nazi era. It’s hardly the first – we can go back at least as far as The Producers (remember ‘Springtime for Hitler’?) or even perhaps Chaplin’s spoof – but Waititi has such a casual offbeat glee about his humour that it’s going to make some people uncomfortable… at first. The morals of the film are secure so don’t you worry: German Nazi ideology is definitely portrayed as bad, Jojo’s mother is part of the resistance, and the teenage Jewish girl that Jojo’s mother is hiding serves the purpose of educating Jojo about the humanity of ‘the other.’ Even the imaginary Hitler has his clearly articulated role – he’s an expression of the cult mentality that Jojo has given himself over to and as Jojo befriends the teenage Jewish girl, Elsa, the imaginary Hitler starts having small meltdowns until Jojo is able to reject him outright. It’s a movie about deprogramming, set in an artificial, very colourfully rendered Nazi era, kind of like that in The Sound of Music, but much funnier. The way everybody casually salutes ‘Heil Hitler’ (as if they’re just saying rounds of ‘hi’ every time they encounter people) sets up the offbeat tone, as do the cheesy German accents everybody employs. It’s got some of the humourous life affirming glee of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful without falling into the unbelievable sentimentality that preyed on that film.
In the early part of Jojo Rabbit, the crowd at my movie theatre was laughing quite a bit as the film established its bizarre outlook through the ten year old’s view of Hitler as a best buddy and Sam Rockwell‘s portrayal as a disaffected, sardonic Nazi commander in charge of training the Hitler youth. The film has its share of slapstick. As the film progressed, there was less uproarious laughter coming from the crowd because the film had begun to work its particular stakes. There was still laughter but you could feel that the complex mechanics of the triangle involving Jojo’s mom (who never realizes that Jojo has discovered Elsa), Elsa, and Jojo were working their magic and pulling the audience in. Waititi (who wrote the screenplay as well as directed the film – it’s sort of an adaptation of Christine Leunen‘s book Caging Skies but I’m sure the film’s sensibility is all Waititi’s) is a master of irony: verbal irony, situational irony, character irony, ironic timing and editing, ironic tone and delivery, you name it. His ability to keep the story zipping along while focusing on a clear message about the dangers of following a cult of personality and its ideology, all the while affecting a modern ironic tone is remarkable. It’s hard not to read a Trump-ian message in the subtext but that’s probably best discussed by someone else in some other review.
Besides the filmmaking and editing which are impressive, kudos really have to be given to the cast and the fine work they do. First of all, whenever a director gets in front of the camera, my alarm goes on high alert but Waititi is fine and funny and enjoyable as the imaginary Hitler. Both our young actors Roman Griffin Davis (as Jojo) and Thomasin McKenzie (as Elsa) are incredible and hold the film together. The mixture of antipathy and interest that gives way to bonding and even love between them, all mixed in with humour, will move you. Rockwell is aces as the misplaced Nazi commander, world weary and not without kindness, as are in fact all the other minor Nazi characters including Rebel Wilson who delivers some pretty funny laconic moments and Stephen Merchant who plays a gestapo leader. I’ve never thought of Scarlett Johansson (she plays Jojo’s mom) as an actor with great range or delivery but she’s fine in this as a fearless, resourceful woman, wise beyond her years. I suppose that casting Scarjo as a mom is casting against type (she even makes a joke about how attractive she is) but she does have the ability to deliver her dialogue as a witty, steely German hausfrau with a heart of gold. She’s the mom that every slightly forlorn and ideologically deluded ten year old boy yearns for.
I suspect that this movie is going to be one of the big surprise hits of the year and may even end up with an Oscar or two – the same thing happened to Life is Beautiful twenty years ago. Go out and see it – it’s well worth it.