A WWII Narrative

New Zealand actor-director Taika Waititi does what any filmmaker worth his salt should do after a massive hit, and delivers something personal, prickly and difficult. Following his 2017 Marvel adventure Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi goes back to his comedy roots that saw him craft such killer films as Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows. Based on Christine Leunens’ novel, Jojo Rabbit is a risky proposition: a WWII-set story centred on a young German boy in the Hitler Youth.

That boy is Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (British newcomer Roman Griffin Davis), who soon learns that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, the young Kiwi star of Leave No Trace) in their home. Jojo threatens to expose her, but when Elsa blurts out that Jojo’s mother will be killed for her actions, the boy relents, only if she tells him all her “Jew secrets”, so he can compile a book for Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who runs the local Hitler Youth camp.

Whilst Jojo gradually learns over time that Elsa is not much different to her, his impressionable mind is further befuddled by the fact he’s frequently addressed by an imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi). The Führer is something of a father-figure to little Jojo, whose own father is absent, supposedly fighting on the Italian front.

Following the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks, Waititi is in good company when it comes to playing Hitler on screen, but too often the humour misfires on what Waititi calls an “anti-hate satire”. That is echoed in the casting of Rebel Wilson, who offers a typically one-note performance as Fräulein Rahm, an instructor at the Hitler Youth camp. Fortunately, Stephen Merchant is on hand as a Gestapo agent to add some more subtle levity. 

Jojo Rabbit emerges as the ultimate Marmite film; it’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture in the Musical/Comedy category and won the Audience Award in Toronto; and yet it’s received multiple one-star reviews. Is it bad taste? A gross comic blunder? Or a sharp exploration of why we hate? That’s really going to be up to the viewer, but for me, this doesn’t boast the originality of Waititi’s earlier work.

Jojo Rabbit opens on 1 January. For more details, visit here.

James Mottram