Playing Adolf Hitler in a comedy is a risk. In his latest, Taika Waititi stars as a version of the dictator who is the imaginary best friend of ten-year-old Hitler Youth member Jojo Betzler. Waititi’s Hitler has bad posture, an ill-fitting uniform, a lazy accent and a nasty mind. He’s awful, but that isn’t news to anyone, least of all himself. Nothing about this Maori-Jewish filmmaker’s Hitler is to be taken as an example.
1hr 48 mins
Director Taika Waititi
Jojo Rabbit Roman Griffin Davies
Adolf Hitler Taika Waititi
Elsa Korr Thomasin McKenzie
Rosie Betzler Scarlett Johansson
Captain Klenzendorf Sam Rockwell
UK release date 3 January 2020
Distributor Walt Disney
Jojo Rabbit focuses on its eponymous lead, a round-faced boy who struggles to stand out, but is blindly devoted to Hitler – even though the extent of his passion for Nazism is that he is “massively into swastikas”. It’s a reductive logic, but one that infuses the film with a sense of whimsy that feels intentional. No one is here to educate on or avenge for the horrors of the past – it’s too silly for that, but it’s crystal-clear that Waititi is laughing on the right side of history.
The film finds its conflict in a dilemma for Jojo, when he discovers his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson as a gentle but sparkling rebel) is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic. He meets the girl, Elsa (a perfectly precise Thomasin McKenzie), and boils over with confusion. He’s never spoken to a Jew and has no one of any wisdom to tell him how to behave. His aggressive defence breaks down and gives way to butterflies – both metaphorical and wonderfully literal. Binary prejudice bends, making room for a relationship that becomes deeply rewarding.
In the Hitler Youth, Jojo earns his nickname when he can’t bring himself to snap a rabbit’s neck. He dodges the violence of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, back on that playing-a-racist beat) and his equally obtuse associates Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson, whose nagging quirks fit perfectly with the deliberate annoyingness of it all) and Alfie Allen’s Finkel – as well as an eerily well-cast Stephen Merchant as Gestapo chief Captain Deertz.
It might seem as if Jojo Rabbit needs to earn its right to exist: this is a sticky subject deployed with brazen humour, making it incredibly easy for someone to get hurt. But the sheer incompetence of nearly every character (save two women – the Jewish teen, and the German mother protecting her) bolsters the idea that the film’s sole intention is to push a good time as far as humanly possible: to laugh at stupidity, to cherish innocence, to find security in the possibility of love.
This is no thorough analysis of radicalisation or condemnation of ideological evil, but the distance Waititi employs finds light in what was so dark, making the film witty, playful and always lucidly well-intentioned.
You don’t choose who you’re born as, but you can choose what you become. And so as Jojo, newcomer Roman Griffin Davies puts in one of the most convincing child performances in years. Those adults that deserve it meet a bitter end and nobody is absolved of their crimes, but these fictional monsters have still benefited from Waititi’s inherent compassion. The film has been sure of its own earnest niceness and use of sarcasm against inhumane evil ever since its ‘anti-hate satire’ tagline was announced.
The facts of history are not up for debate, but memory belongs to each of us. The intimate feelings we hang on to can divide us from the people we hold closest. Jojo Rabbit will rub some viewers the wrong way, but it’s my belief that the film does the best that this, or any other filmmaker working right now, could possibly do.