Jojo Rabbit film review – Taika Waititi’s risks pay off in this bittersweet masterpiece

Posted on 21 January 2020
By Andy Johnson
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Jojo Rabbit has divided critics with it’s hyper surrealist take on Nazi Germany. But Taika Waititi’s daring story deserves praise for it’s bravery in creating a bittersweet masterpiece from a most unusual perspective.

Having imaginary friends can be an essential part of growing up for some troubled children. This certainly seems the case for young Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis), who has created a mighty mate to give him confidence during anxious moments.

Always on hand with advice or a rallying cry of “you got this!” Perfectly normal behaviour and also very cute – even if Jojo’s imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler.

From the opening bars of the score, Waititi sets out his stall, comparing Nazism and the spell-binding fanaticism for Hitler to Beatle Mania, with archive Third Reich footage married with the Fab Four’s German version of I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

Jojo Rabbit risks cinematic doom in a dozen different ways. But miraculously manages to avoid most of them. Jojo’s fantasy Führer somehow manages to be both the most outrageous and yet most realistic thing about the film.

Based on the novel ‘Caging Skies’ by Christine Leunens, and featuring Taika Waititi himself as Johannes’s madcap Hitler – the movie filters the banality and evil of the Third Reich through the consciousness of a smart, sensitive, basically ordinary German child.

Swinging from farce to sentimentality and infused throughout with Waititi’s trademark anarchic pop humanism, which we’ve seen in his other films – Hunt For The Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok.

Our 10-year-old hero is raised in a small German town, force fed a diet of propaganda and official Nazi youth teachings. So, it’s no surprise he has turned Hitler into an emotional support figure, an always there for me pal – whose silliness is partly the mirror image of the boy’s own insecurities.

There are the serial humiliations of Hitler Youth day camp to contend with. Skinny and sheltered, with half-hearted dreams of growing into an Aryan warrior, Johannes is bullied and teased. His nickname, Jojo Rabbit, isn’t bestowed affectionately.

The oddballs running the camp, an unhinged Valkyrie (Rebel Wilson) and a washed-out storm trooper (Sam Rockwell), are hardly ideal role models, and not only for the obvious ideological reasons.

But they prove to be less terrifying than the local Gestapo man, played by Stephen Merchant, who even manages to relinquish his thick West Country accent to play the tall spectre like figure. In a pivotal scene, the mounting tension only punctuated by the maddening and ridiculous stream of Hail Hitler’s… the seven Nazis have to give each other upon meeting.

There is a rich history of lampooning the Third Reich. Most notably Charlie Chaplin in the Dictator. It is hard to think we’re doubting whether we should be playing Nazis for laughs, more than 50 years since Mel Brooks first declared it’s Springtime for Hitler and Germany.

Waititi’s decision to play Hitler as a camp and manic personification of comic relief divided critics when it first started the film festival circuit. But the bold move taken by the director to step in front of the camera has seemingly paid off – with his movie now riding high with six Oscar nominations.

Sam Rockwell deserves plaudits for his performance as Capt Klenzendorf, anchoring a sense of jaded gravitas into his character who has to deal with being demoted while the regime is crumbling on all fronts.

Likewise Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother, who graciously portrays the kind, human side of the German people, who defied the Nazis within their own country. She is constantly at odds with her own son throughout the story. As they all continue to live in denial about what they are doing to survive.

As the pace and intensity of the movie picks up towards a crushing crescendo, you can feel totally unprepared for the the poignancy of Rosie’s callous punishment at the hands of the Gestapo.

It’s a testament to the prowess of the acting, that we are so deftly pulled in to a 10 year-old boy’s view of the world. We’re hoping to see a lot more of Roman Griffin Davis, in one of the most remarkable performances by a child actor in recent memory.

Towards the end of the film when Jojo’s town is invaded by the Allied Forces, the dread and fear of the small town Germans is palpable and the audience feels it. Something we’ve not been used to when watching World War II films and another reason why this film deserves to win awards and be remembered for more than just another Nazi send up.