Film Review | JoJo Rabbit: Defenestrate the Hitler inside yourself

Taika Waititi’s Hitler Youth comedy is a brazen tonic in these tough times, and an excellent showcase for all involved

With the alarming rise of far-right sentiment sweeping across America and most of Europe, it falls to both protest movements and art to give us some respite from the mess, perhaps even offering some form of tangible resistance along the way.

But while marches, petitions and social media outrage does its standard rigmarole, with memes and endless threads of accusation and counter-accusation littering our digital lives, we become accustomed to a quick consumption model of activism, forgetting that while art moves at a slower pace, it may in the end offer a more rounded experience of what we’re after.

The German box office hit ‘Look Who’s Back’ (2015), directed by David Wnendt from an equally successful novel by Timur Vermes, posited a scenario where Adolf Hitler (Oliver Masucci) is transported into our present world, gradually working his way back up the social, cultural and political hegemony of contemporary Germany.

We chuckled along as this bumbling autocrat out of time negotiated his way through modern realities and mores, but it all came with a bitter aftertaste – a lot of it was funny because it was true, and Hitler’s literal return made plausible is, in the end, no laughing matter, particularly when the film’s closing lines, intoned by the former Fuhrer as he mentally rifles through present-day memes, are “I can work with this”.

New Zealand actor-director Taika Waititi chooses to tackle this phenomenon in a similarly farcical register, though in JoJo Rabbit, some of the particulars are flipped: contemporary attitudes and vernacular are transposed to the latter years of World War II, during which Germany insists on keeping troop morale high despite flagging prospects. Johannes (Roman Griffith Davis) is just one of the boys still attracted to the fervour of the Hitler Youth: the young man – whose father is absent, supposedly fighting in Italy – even hallucinates his own personal Hitler (Taika Waititi himself) to motivate him as he heads to boot camp, much to the chagrin of his sceptical (and secretly seditious) mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson).

In fact, Rosie has done the unthinkable, by stowing away a young Jewish escapee, the teenage girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) into her home, with whom Johannes now has to come to some form of peaceful co-existence, learning the true facts of the war in particular, and life in general, along the way.

Waititi has certainly come a long way since his involvement with the cult Kiwi comedy troupe The Flight of the Conchords, and his second feature Boy (2010). While the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014) endeared him to audiences far and wide, it was his helming of Marvel Studios blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok (2017) that really made him a household name, and which arguably allowed for a mildly daring feature like JoJo Rabbit to accumulate the kind of studio goodwill and starpower that it had in the end (Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant and Alfie Allen round off a healthy ensemble cast).

Adapted by Waititi from Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies, it eases into its concept with a heartfelt backbone.

Johannes is somewhat insufferable in his right-wing fervour, but we also recognise him as a tragically misguided young soul, and one of the few lucky enough to have access to some form of redemption through Elsa, played with delicate loveliness by McKenzie.

Taking her captivity in stride, accepts her role as instructive big sister to Johannes with sneaky relish, and their exchanges are the true emotional trajectory of the story.

Already juggling both script and direction, Waititi throws himself into the role of Johannes’ imaginary Hitler super-ego – a clownish Tyler Durden shrunk down for a Young Adult crowd. ‘Looney Tunes’ may be used disparagingly every now and then, but Waititi’s Bugs Bunny-like contortions are really a testament to his masterful skills at physical comedy, of the like we haven’t really seen in a mainstream feature of this kind since perhaps Johnny Depp’s early experiments with Jack Sparrow.

Waititi’s trademark vigour does however appear to lose steam throughout the directing process, where he defaults to a kind of ‘Wes Anderson lite’ mode which does offer a clean palette and neat rhythm to the proceedings – allowing the exchanges between Johannes and Elsa to thankfully take centre stage – but which does rein in some of the chaotic energy that has become something of a trademark for this inspired trickster.

We can chalk this down to him being somewhat cautious with the material at hand – no farcical vampires or pseudo-Norse superheroes here – and accept it all as the necessary steps of a filmmaker with great skill, growing at his own pace.

The verdict

Taika Waititi’s sixth feature proves that the comedic Kiwi made good is ready to stretch his creative muscles when he could very easily have rested on his laurels, which is proof enough of commitment to the craft, if nothing else. And although JoJo Rabbit may lack the irresistible zaniness of What We Do in the Shadows, or the pitch-perfect coming-of-age comedy of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, it more than makes up for it with the subversive edge of its concept and the sneaky moral courage that underpins its whole operation. It may not be ‘edgy’ high-concept political comedy of the kind Chris Morris excels in and Sacha Baron Cohen manages in his better moments. But its refusal to give in to either total sentimentality or total cynicism may just be the balm we need in these bitter times.

JoJo Rabbit is currently screening at Eden Cinemas, St Julian’s, and will be showing at Spazju Kreattiv, Valletta on the following dates: January 28 and 31; February 6, 9, 15, 21 and 23 (all shows at 19:30 apart from February 9 at 17:30)