Morgan Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Archie Yates, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth
… a skilful film but also one that is bound to divide people.
A German Jewish philosopher (who escaped the Nazis) once famously said, “After Auschwitz, poetry is no longer possible”. It’s not literally true but it is a resonant phrase. The Holocaust still stands as the apotheosis of man’s irrationality and his self-destructive capacity for evil. But we live on.
In JoJo Rabbit, adept and loveable New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows) has thrown down a kind of gauntlet with this mixture of comic romance and historical fantasy. Adapted from a book by Christine Leunens, it tells the story of a pre-teen boy nicknamed JoJo (excellent newcomer Roman Griffin Davis) who is trying to be a good Nazi at the end of the second World War in Germany. All the while, unbeknownst to JoJo, his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson evidently enjoying being comedic) is sheltering a Jewish girl in the attic.
As the country is collapsing around him, little JoJo goes to Hitler Youth camps and tries to learn combat skills. There, he befriends an equally inept recruit, Yorki (another good child performance from Archie Yates). The camp commander is played by Sam Rockwell, which is usually reason enough to see a film.
JoJo also conjures up Hitler as an imaginary friend. Hitler is played here by the director himself. This is another section where the admix of comedy brings a certain uncertainty to our responses. Waititi has a lot of onscreen charm as well as great comic chops but this is a dangerous artistic choice. It is not that we cannot imagine any ‘good’ aspects to Hitler’s character (he was, for example, a vegetarian who liked animals), but why would we want to ‘humanise’ him in this particular relationship? Wouldn’t any old Nazi have had the same effect? But maybe that is missing the point. Also, filmmakers have ‘gone there’ in the past, most famously Mel Brooks in The Producers.
The film also has a few nice slapstick gags (all of which, when played as a montage, allow the trailer to make the film seem like just one riotous comedy). To be fair, the film does make small gestures towards the dark historical heart of the subject matter but, equally, it dare not dwell there for the obvious reasons that this would make subsequent comedy almost impossible to enjoy. This is a skilful film but also one that is bound to divide people.