After the massive success of Thor Ragnarok, Taika Waititi could probably have directed any film he fancied. But he decided to stick with Jojo Rabbit, a long-cherished project, based on a novel by Christine Leunens and written for the screen by Waititi himself. Before Thor, no studio wanted to touch ‘a coming of age comedy featuring the Hitler youth,’ and it’s really not difficult to understand why. On paper, it sounds batshit crazy and on the screen, it looks… well, pretty deranged. But mostly in a good way.
Ten-year-old Johannes (Roman Griffith Davis) is doing his best to fit in with the other kids in the local Hitler youth, and he’s helped along by his imaginary friend, Adolf (Taika Waititi), for whom Johannes has an unquestioning adoration. But a bullying incident soon earns Johannes the titular nickname of Jojo Rabbit. Meanwhile, he tries to figure out what’s going on with his secretive mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who clearly tolerates her son belonging to an organisation she detests, while taking every opportunity to instill in him the kind of worldview that the Nazis would certainly not approve of. And then, a chance discovery up in the attic leads Johannes to Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish girl, whom Rosie has given refuge to. Should he inform his sympathetic troop leader, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell)? Or should he try to learn as much as he can about this mysterious creature whom he had been taught to believe is some kind of evil monster?
The film lurches audaciously between moments of slapstick humour and scenes of outright horror. Of course, this is all seen from a ten year old’s perspective, which accounts for the cartoonish feel of the film, but there’s sometimes the impression that characters are being brought on as added comic relief – Stephen Merchant’s chilling turn as a member of the Gestapo is a good case in point, great while he’s on, but then we barely see him again. Rebel Wilson, an actor whose popularity I struggle to understand, has a cameo role as Fräulein Rahm, occasionally dropping in to shout obscenities and burn books. Johanssen is delightful as Rosie, while Johannes’ interraction with his doleful best friend, Yorki (Archie Yates) is one of the film’s strongest suits. I love too that Elsa is depicted not as a victim, but as a strong, resourceful survivor.
It’s also true that, in a world that is increasingly drifting to the right, Jojo Rabbit has an added prescience. Here, the antics of fascists are held up for ridicule. If only what’s happening in the real world right now were anything like as funny.