I remember seeing the trailer for Jojo Rabbit and thinking: ‘I definitely need to catch that film as soon as its released’ yet simultaneously, my enthusiasm was somewhat dulled by my confusion at Waititi’s involvement with the Marvel canon.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t think it was bad. I was just wary of the fact that Hollywood had snatched him up and was potentially grooming him for future blockbuster projects, whilst in the process distancing him from his indie origins and quirky stylistic traits. Was this film going to be an attempt to show the world he’s still the same indie director at heart? And if so, was it going to work after the taste of sweet, prolific success with the big Hollywood blockbuster? I was cynical, to say the least, but found myself browsing through the plethora of inclusive movies on the 9-hour flight to Atlanta and clicking on JoJo Rabbit to watch on my tiny seat-screen.
This was not a choice I came to regret.
The film, based on the novel Caging Skies, sees protagonist young Johannes a.k.a Jojo (Roman Griffin Davies) as a fanatical Hitler Youth with an imaginary friend in the form of none other than Adolf Hitler himself (portrayed by Waititi). The opening scene sees Johannes and his hype-beast/substitute father-figure Hitler enthusiastically preparing for the first day of enrolment at a local Hitlerjugend camp, a ceremonious coming-of-age milestone for Johannes. His single mother Rosie (played by Scarlett Johansson) is an encouraging force in the house, her colourful character brightens every scene in which she’s featured with her animated expressions and quick wit. With her well-wishes, brimming with excitement and accompanied by his “best friend” Yorki (Archie Yates), Johannes starts the journey of a lifetime in his pursuit of his Nazi dream.
The Hitlerjungend camp is portrayed as a comical Boy Scout operation, as opposed to a manufacturer of lethal and prejudiced killing machines. The children are led by a disillusioned Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his second-in-command/sidekick Finkel (Alfie Allen). The innocence of childhood is captured in its full glory against the dismal backdrop of a Nazi-infested Germany. The first part of the film highlights the glibness of young boys, having a laugh whilst simultaneously training to handle weapons and kill Jews. There’s lots of throwing grenades, kids accidentally stabbing themselves and the classic coming-of-age trope that sees older bullies preying on the timid kids who have just started out.
In a desperate bid to prove himself to the higher ranks as a brave and uncompromising Nazi soldier, Johannes winds up having a very unfortunate accident which sees him suspended from action. Essentially under house arrest during recovery and bored out of his head, with no training camp to occupy his days, Johannes’ whole world is turned upside down upon discovering his mother’s well-kept secret: a stowaway Jewish girl (Elsa, played by Thomasin McKenzie) living in a cavern behind his dead sister’s bedroom wall.
Their companionship is at the heart of this bildungsroman. With this meeting in-person, Johannes’ beliefs about Jewish folk are challenged by Elsa. Johannes seeks “Jew secrets” and decides to produce an effective guide on how to catch Jews, based on understanding the way that they think. Elsa sardonically responds to his interrogations and the two become unlikely companions, despite their adversities and differing perspectives on the world.
Difficult as it may be to believe, what with all the anti-Semitism and fascism, the film is a humorous delight. I did see that a version of the trailer had to actually declare that the film was a satire, as though that weren’t obvious enough, which does mean that there are people out there who may have actually understood this to be a film that genuinely promotes fascist values. I mean, come on. Adolf Hitler is literally being satirised from the onset and would be rolling in his grave, upon hearing that a Polynesian fella called Taika Waititi is playing/ridiculing him.
In between the laughs, there’s a series of complicated and beautiful relationships between the intimate cast. There’s the tenderness between Rosie’s role as a conflicted mother and her extremist, whilst very naive, son Jojo. Then the protective fatherly-figure in Captain Klenzendorf, who offers a steady stream of quips and wit, but seems to have a genuine soft-spot for Jojo (despite his generally apathetic attitude towards the training camp and all the boys involved). At the heart of the film there’s the pressing heartache of a young girl who has presumably lost all living family and friends, and is now forced to live on
An impressively nuanced performance by Davies, merely 12 years old with the capability of portraying emotional maturity beyond his years, leads this film into my list of 2020 favourites. I can officially tick ‘weeping on a full-capacity plane during a 9-hour journey’ off my bucket-list because there were definitely a few moments where I was repressing the overwhelming desire to blubber away. By the end of the movie, I was impressed (to say the least) and deeply grateful that I had ignored some of the more cynical reviews prior to award season.
Waititi perfectly captures the dreamlike world of childhood and then depicts the inevitable shattering of that world, as the war erupts. The event for which Johannes has passionately prepared is far more visceral and chaotic than he could ever have expected: running through the rubble and the fog of gunpowder smoke with bombs booming in the distance, the kid is lost and overwhelmed. Possessing the signature quirkiness and wit of Waititi’s classic humour, there are unexpectedly powerful moments of the sweet and sad persuasion scattered in between.