Roman Griffin Davis is Johannes Betzler, a ten-year-old boy who enthusiastically joins the Hitler Youth. “Jojo,” as his mother and second-best friend call him, dresses up in his uniform and talks to his best friend, an imaginary Adolf Hitler, played with delightful abandon by director, co-producer and co-screenwriter Taika Waititi. I’m most familiar, I’d imagine like most people, with Waititi’s work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I’m now destined to examine his entire body of work which, as it turns out, is rather quite extensive.
Along with his tangible best friend Yorki (Archie Yates), Jojo goes to a Hitler Youth training camp, run by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) or rather “Captain K,” in an attempt to make him more accessible. During their training, Jojo is tasked with killing a rabbit in a scene that demonstrates the power of peer pressure and the concepts of nature versus nurture. Jojo can’t bring himself to kill the rabbit. He ends up running into the forest to the taunts of the other campers who have now dubbed him “Jojo Rabbit.” While in the woods, Jojo imagines a conversation with Hitler which galvanizes him into grabbing a grenade from an instructor and throwing it against a tree with disastrous and unforeseen results.
Jojo is injured and while confined to his home, he discovers his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johanssen) has been hiding a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in a secret room in their house. Jojo gives some thought to turning her in, but Elsa convinces him that it would have disastrous consequences for Jojo and his mother. So, instead, Jojo decides to discover what makes Jews tick. Elsa feeds his paranoia, which makes for a delightful narrative.
Waititi has taken a difficult subject and turned it into a masterwork of drama, comedy, and just a tinge of horror. He turns in a delightful comedic performance as an imaginary Hitler while at the same time constructing a tale of a town about to be liberated seemingly against its wishes. The film is exceptionally photographed by Mihai Malaimare Jr., which, combined with the direction of Waititi, communicates feelings subtly and powerfully.
Scarlett Johanssen is marvelous as a mother who is trying to raise her son among the madness of a world at war, and Davis is good as the dutiful son of his parents and the Third Reich. Throughout the film, the relationship between Jojo and Elsa evokes curiosity and tenderness. Sam Rockwell continues to turn in nuanced performances as in this one where he is at times comic and, other times, compelling.
Jojo Rabbit is currently in limited release, and it was challenging to find a theatre where I could see it. Fortunately, it opens in wider release on 8 November. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend you see it.