4.5 out of 5 stars.
When Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” was released in 1940, Adolf Hitler was at the height of his power. Chaplin’s film, which he wrote, directed, and starred in (playing a duel role that included Adenoid Hynkel, a parody of Hitler), concludes with a passionate speech advocating for humanity. Despite the fact that they are very different films, it’s hard not to think of “Dictator” when thinking of “Jojo Rabbit,” a film set during World War II era Germany which Taika Waititi writes, directs, and stars in as a comical version of Hitler. But rather than looking ahead to an upcoming conflict, this film reflects on a past conflict and uses it as a warning in these troubled times, while also advocating for humanity and acceptance of others.
The titular Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) while his father is off fighting in the war. Jojo is passionate about Nazism, to the point where his imaginary friend is a version of Hitler (Waititi), always in his head, cheering him on and filling him with crazy notions about those Jews. Along with his friend Yorki (Archie Yates, who is adorable and quite frankly steals the movie), Jojo enrolls in a Hitler Youth camp run by the negligent Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who was discharged from fighting after losing his eye in battle. But when he himself is injured and is forced to spend more time at home, Jojo discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Initially appalled, Jojo decides to keep her secret if she agrees to tell him “Jew secrets” that he can put in a book to give to Klenzendorf. But over the course of their conversations, Jojo comes to realize that Elsa is just a girl, not a horned creature, and that he really likes her.
“Jojo Rabbit” is large a comedy, and it has some really hilarious moments. As such, it could have easily fallen into the trap of being too light, and failing to really convey the horrors of the war. But Waititi balances both beautifully. One second, Jojo and his mom could be having an amusing conversation. The next, they could round a corner and find a group of dead Jews and anti-Nazis hung in the middle of the town square. However far this film may let the viewer drift into an amusing fantasy land where the Nazis are incompetent and Hitler is an idiot, it always snaps us back to the reality, which is this: the Nazi Party under Hitler, and the Gestapo, was not incompetent, and Hitler, while racist, while anti-Semitic, was not a doofus, and that horrible things happened under their power. The Holocaust is the main thing that the film fails to really convey, even though as the audience we know that is happening, and that that is what Elsa is hiding from. But it’s never really clear if Jojo understands just what happens to the Jews who are taken to concentration camps. In his character, we see a little boy who believes that Jews are inhuman, but I’m also not sure that, despite the way he talks, he would ever actually inflict harm or want to see any of them hurt. He plays at war in the beginning, but as Jojo comes to realize as the film progresses, war is not a game.
There are a couple other character details that are hard to wrestle with. Some viewers may find the idea of laughing at Hitler—a figure who should be taken seriously as a real threat- distasteful. Waititi, a self-proclaimed Polynesian Jew, plays Hitler as the sort of adult a young boy would both want to play with and come to for advice—which checks out, considering that Hitler in this movie only appears as a figment of Jojo’s imagination. But there are a couple moments where he does seem terrifying, and we can trace the way Jojo interacts with Hitler throughout the film as points in the development of his character. The film also has a problem with good Nazis, and I’m not talking exclusively about the children. The idea that there are decent people on both sides isn’t one that we need to see regarding Nazis, and especially isn’t one that we need to see in a movie that parallels the state of our current culture.
The direction and cinematography in this film is excellent. By focusing the camera on certain things early in the film, Waititi sets up the unsuspecting viewer for important scenes later in the movie. One reveal in particularly is one of the most haunting and heart-breaking shots I’ve seen in a movie in a while.
“Jojo Rabbit” is also excellently cast, with its young stars Davis and McKenzie (who made an impact last year in “Leave No Trace”) particularly standing out. Their characters feature a bit of a role reversal that reflects where they come from. While Jojo may appear to be the one eager to go to war, in reality he isn’t a fighter at all, which becomes really evident when he confronts Elsa, who easily bests him. Even though she doesn’t specifically indicate as much, it can be assumed that Elsa has been hardened some by the horrors she has witnessed. It’s safe to assume that this story never could have worked had Jojo been a bit older, but as it is, they are both incredibly endearing. We see the war through the eyes of children, and Davis’s every expression lets us in on that experience. Johansson surprises as Jojo’s mother, who may have a great sense of humor but also struggles to care for her son while secretly working against the Nazis. It’s a role that reminds us just how good of an actress she is. Supporting players include Rebel Wilson in a purely comical role as the overzealous Hitler Youth camp instructor Fraulein Rahm, and Stephen Merchant as Gestapo agent Deertz.
As discussed, there are some aspects to “Jojo Rabbit” that may not exactly be flaws, nor hinder the enjoyment of the film, but are worth bringing up. But overall, Waititi’s screenplay deftly balances borderline ridiculous comedy and serious wartime drama. It may not go down as an enduring classic in the same way Chaplin’s work has, but it’s enjoyable to watch in addition to providing social commentary that feels too relevant all these years after the war. Waititi makes us laugh—hysterically, at times—but his film also serves as a warning: humanity has gone down this path before, and it could again.
Runtime: 108 minutes. Rated PG-13.