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Jojo was a boy...
Taika Waititi, the New Zealand director burst on to the international arena with What We Do In The Shadows, a glorious vampire comedy. After success with Thor: Ragnarok, he returns to more modest, controversial filmmaking with JOJO RABBIT. Camus joins the resistance...
  'Given the recent surge of neo-Nazism, it’s strange that a movie about a boy and his friend Adolf is not capital-A about white nationalism. "It was around Charlottesville when people were asking, ‘Is this a reaction to that?’” he says. "And it was like, no, this is just something I was trying to make, and weirdly, it’s becoming more and more pertinent.'
  Interview with Director Taika Waititi*


Every now and again (what a curious phrase that is) there comes along a talent that even God could have not seen coming. New Zealand is not necessarily the bubbling, magic cultural potion here as inspiring as the country no doubt is. That seemingly underrepresented collection of islands has been throwing out world-class creatives for a long time. While not at the head of the international table (Peter Jackson is the outlier here), the country is well represented in filmmaking, opera, television, rugby, mountaineering (well, one very famous one) etc. What distinguishes Waititi's unfurling, as a genuine artist is one enormous left field choice. Who at Marvel loved What We Do In The Shadows so much and suddenly lightbulbed "Let's get that guy to helm a $180 million dollar second sequel action comedy!" It was a stroke, dare I say, of no little genius and unleashed this self-styled 'Polynesian Jew' onto the world. That was a great day. He dived into popular culture like a gleeful gannet and proceeded to pop up everywhere. Recently he directed the final episode of Disney TV's The Mandalorian, which was one of the series' best as well as voicing the re-programmed assassin robot now acting as a nursemaid to 'the child'. I refuse to call it Joe Pesci, wait. That's Gervais' joke. When I first saw the ubiquitous marketing picture of Waititi as Hitler in full glory leap, I smiled. That's the sort of stuff I want to see from people who care... and from people who don't care if their artistic efforts offend. Skip the next two paragraphs to get to review-specific commentary. I just have to unload a relevant recollection that hit me like a thunderbolt.

Halfway through the film, a precise moment in its narrative detonated a memory in my head that I'd not revisited for decades. It went deep and surprised me enough for me to sit in wonder at how these things called 'minds' actually function. In the early years of my high school experience I was cast in a play. I am actually in the process of stunning myself as I remember the title: Peace Like A Fire. It was about orphaned children in World War II and how they had to band together to survive until the Allies arrived to liberate their homeland. Spot the parallel? The majority of the children were Jewish refugees. I played the brainwashed, insufferable Aryan German child who, to put it mildly, had a problem with those he'd been hardwired to despise. For a few afternoons in the early 1970s, I was Johannes (Jojo) Betzler. While my character hadn't been taught to see Jews as literal monsters, he was deluded enough to take on bad faith the poison that had been poured into him by older, ignorant and fearful power-seeking individuals. Over the course of the play (performed rather strikingly in a church) my character came to understand the humanity that everyone shares and even to the extent of joining in with a simple Jewish ceremony. My English teacher, Mr. Evans authored the play and my Religious Teacher Mr. Rowlands was an enthusiastic supporter but beyond that the experience is mostly lost. I don't remember my own character's name, my fellow cast, the actual surroundings. But I do remember this with startling clarity;

"Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha'olam ha'motzi lechem min ha'aretz."

Now why would the simple Motzi Bread Ceremony still stick so well in my own mind just from that play? I mentioned that I knew it off by heart to some Jewish friends who demanded proof. I recited the words. My friends smiled. "That was great!" I cocked my head. There was a proviso, a 'but' bearing down on my like hail. "But you missed out one word." "Which one?" Which word had I missed out from the Bread Ceremony? You're ahead of me. "The word 'bread'," said my friend. I have no idea if this tenuous and perhaps fatuous connection to a religion (like all religions I have no faith in), has ignited my love for Jojo Rabbit but I came out of that film incredibly moved and hugely entertained. I cannot understand those who find it anything other than charming and very human. So what's the story?

Sam Rockwell, Scarlet Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis

It's the ragged tail of World War II. Germany is close to falling. Ten year-old Johannes (Jojo) is desperate to be a part of the Hitler Youth. His imaginary friend is a very childish Adolf (played by the director Taiki Waititi, pronounced Tie-Ka Why-Teetee just FYI) who tries to support his young friend in his endeavours. Shamed after not demonstrating the killing instinct on a fluffy bunny, he's given a derogatory nickname, 'Jojo Rabbit' and energised after a pep talk from his postage stamp moustached pal, he storms the grenade lesson, lets one loose in screaming triumph... and it blows up right beside him. Jojo is wounded, face scarred and legs no longer working as well as they might. Housebound, he discovers a secret hideaway in his deceased sister's bedroom. In it is Elsa, a Jew taken in by Jojo's mother. Let the conflict, humour, suspense, tension and joy begin... That's only the first thirty minutes or so. There's a great deal to enjoy throughout

Firstly, a nod to coincidence. Before I left for the cinema this afternoon, I spent a few moments trying to come up with a subtitle for the review. I settled on a re-purposed line that only older readers and Beatles fans might get; Jojo was a boy... Imagine my delighted surprise that, as I took my seat, Get Back was coming over the cinema speakers. Of course it's the song in which 'Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner," was the opening line. Mysterious ways... The opening montage is a scream. Suitably apt vintage newsreel is rather brilliantly edited together by Tom Eagles with Jojo's enthusiastic 'Heil Hitler!' dash, and his exploits at camp. The real surprise is, as the hands shoot up in the ghastly salutation of Der Führer, we hear the real Beatles singing I Wanna Hold Your Hand in German. Many artists in the past recorded different language versions of their songs. Another two featured on the film's soundtrack, one that Waititi takes full advantage of at the very end. The humour is never forced or squeezed out of an anti-Nazi fist. It's human. Once Jojo has almost blown himself to pieces, his teacher Capt. Klenzendorf (more on the sublime Sam Rockwell a little later) simply says to his class "Don't do that." The throwaway lines are funny but it's often the situation or a realisation of what a situation means that carries the emotional heft of the film. The key to the reading of Jojo Rabbit is that almost the entire piece is seen from a ten year-old's perspective. While he may try and get away with something he'd never get away with as a boy with real adults, the film allows us to feel that he might with the screen adults. But the essence of the drama is the relationship between Jojo and his mother and then Jojo and Elsa. I could watch a film on each of these relationships. Then by extension, the true core of this remarkable film is the astonishingly honest and engaging performances.

I make no apologies singing the virtues of all the main players. Roman Griffin Davis as Johannes "Jojo Rabbit" Betzler is a revelation. This isn't some worldly, under-grown fifteen year-old. This is the real deal, ten years-old at the time of filming and he is probably trying to make sense of the chaos of filmmaking as much as his character Jojo is trying to make sense of the horrors of being in the middle of a war. He is never less than convincing and at times Waititi brings a sly comic sensibility out of him as well as an emotional commitment laudable in any actor especially in one so young. The director must take some credit for this. Winding up her pretend younger brother is the Jewish girl in the wall, Elsa. Played beautifully by New Zealand native, Thomasin McKenzie, she plays her in charge from the off. Her ghostly figure scares and stalks Jojo at their first meeting. She takes pleasure in showing her young 'captor' the folly of his own beliefs about people while not missing the chance to put even fancier ideas into his little mind just for the fun of it. This relationship really grows in film terms and its final manifestation is one of real maturity. It's also a showstopper as far as I'm concerned.

Adolf (Taika Waititi) and Jojo

Shining bright is the talented roster of adult performers. An actress with a striking physical presence and terrific acting chops, Scarlet Johansson has nothing to prove. The variety of characters she has played in her career proves she has great range. As Jojo's mother Rosie, she plays a secret anti-Nazi and is the life force of the film, someone representing normality but more important than that, a lust for life and freedom, something denied her under the current regime. The brief dance she shares with her crippled son is a tearful delight. I loved her impression of her own husband, required to talk to Jojo in his father's voice... A soldier's jacket is thrown over her shoulders and a whisked up handful of soot smeared from one ear to another to simulate stubble. When we get to the close up, Johansson's full scarlet lipsticked lips have somehow escaped the soot make up swipe. Waititi's own Hitler is of course a projection of Jojo's own father but that doesn't stop the actor/director having a ball in the role. Unlike his real counterpart, imaginary buffoon Adolf is a source of great childlike joy. Rebel Wilson as Fräulein Rahm, a large and fanatical instructor in the Youth camp, is about as monstrous a character as you can get and she relishes the role. You almost imagine her licking her lips. In the darkest moments, this party faithful acolyte straps grenades to the backs of children while telling them to go and "Hug an American!" Perfectly cast - and I'm not sure that's much of a compliment - is Stephen Merchant. With a breezy horror, he plays Deertz, a Gestapo agent. While his erstwhile partner in the business Ricky Gervais was playing his usual havoc with Hollywood royalty last night at the Golden Globes, Merchant was striking fear into the residents of Jojo's house as a simple bluff becomes a matter of life or death. The seeming banality of evil is pulsing in his veins and that's quite a remove from his comedy persona and that (now) totally evil, Bristol accent (with a perceptible Ealing German accent, ya?) Game of Thrones alumni Alfie Allen plays Finkel, the second-in-command to Captain Klenzendorf with more than an ounce of gay subtext. The two always seem to be imminently entwined just as we cut to them. I hope Allen branches out or is allowed to break out of the insufferable sidekick roles. This is one of the problems of a TV show's enormous success. I'd like to see him in a more sympathetic role but here, he's terrific as Klenzendorf's whipping boy. Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf has perhaps the most nuanced character to play. He starts the film as a one-eyed war veteran demoted to teaching children to join the Hitler Youth. He's confident, cocksure and pretty unhappy with his lot. Aside from the aforementioned almost-clinches with his aide, his character is imbued with an integrity none of the other Nazi characters seem to have. He's certainly not a one note Jackboot. To reveal more of his character might be regarded as spoilers so I'll leave it there. But Rockwell is a treat.

I was hugely impressed with the fine line Waititi manages to navigate in Jojo Rabbit. Things are funny, sardonic and satirical but they are also heartfelt and emotionally devastating. It takes a filmmaker of rare talent to eke out that lot without one half souring the other. I had that added personal memory jogged to adhere me to the film further. And to add to that memory today... "We can be heroes..." (just from that play).



Jojo Rabbit poster
Jojo Rabbit

New Zealand | USA |Czech Republic
108 mins
directed by
Taika Waititi
produced by
Carthew Neal
Taika Waititi
Chelsea Winstanley
written by
Taika Waititi
from the novel by
Christine Leunens
Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Tom Eagles
Michael Giacchino
production design
Ra Vincent
Roman Griffin Davis
Thomasin McKenzie
Scarlett Johansson
Taika Waititi
Sam Rockwell
Rebel Wilson
Alfie Allen
Stephen Merchant

UK distributor
20th Century Fox
UK release date
1 January 2020
review posted
7 January 2020

See all of Camus' reviews