Taika Waititi pulls off quite the high-wire act both in front of and behind the camera with Jojo Rabbit, an audacious piece of work that looks at Nazi Germany through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy whose imaginary friend just happens to be Adolf Hitler. In adapting Christine Leunens' dark novel, the filmmaker injects his trademark brand of quirk (What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarök) to this tale of one young boy's moral awakening, while effectively skewering a society that would allow a small-minded bigot to lead them.
With his father away at war, the ever-impressionable Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis, wonderful in his debut) is being raised by his iron-willed mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) who allows him to join the Hitler youth, like so many other German boys. While away at camp, he is subjected to the lunacy of the bitter Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), his assistant Finkel (Alfie Allen) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who teach their young charges the fine arts of shooting, grenade throwing and book burning. Yet, despite having a good friend in the ever-optimistic Yorki (Archie Yates), Jojo still feels lonely and often confides in his imaginary friend Hitler (Waititi), who never fails to boost his morale and remind him of how evil Jews are. However, the boy's opinions about anti-Semitism begin to change slightly when he stumbles upon Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teenage girl who his mother just happens to be hiding in their home.
As Jojo comes to know Elsa, his eyes begin to open to the lunacy that surrounds him. Realizing that all his imaginary confidante has told him concerning the Jewish people is a lie, he begins to see through the charade the Nazis put forth. The conversations between Jojo and Hitler are hilarious as well as pointed. As the boy's logic sharpens, the father-figure begins to flounder, unable to adequately answer Jojo's common-sense queries regarding his misguided doctrines. The innocence Davis conveys is the perfect counterpoint to Waititi's arch portrayal of the madman, his eyes widening and gesticulations becoming more frantic as the Fuhrer flounders about, unable to defend his beliefs. As Hitler becomes more child-like, Jojo matures into a young man who can makes his own informed decisions regarding how to live his life and what to believe in. Davis' slight vocal and physical adjustments throughout the film makes this transformation convincing.
Satire only works if those involved are truly committed to their roles and it's obvious that Waititi had everyone pulling in the same direction with similar conviction. Rockwell and Allen have one wry exchange after another, as these two men share a secret that ultimately emerges in glorious fashion once all hope is lost, while Johansson's sincere warmth and strength make for a character to be admired and emulated. It will come as no surprise if she scores an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category here to go along with the nomination for Best Actress she's sure to get for her work in the upcoming Marriage Story.
Jojo Rabbit may be rendered in broad strokes, but that doesn't make it any less effective or its message any less powerful. Only by exposing demagogues as the buffoons they are can we hope to convince those who've yet to fall under their sway that these self-serving beliefs lead only to turmoil and violence. Waititi knows this and provides a timely piece of work that serves as a tribute to those who question the status quo and stand firmly behind their beliefs as chaos reigns around them.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.