Writer and Director: Taika Waititi
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
A child with Hitler as his imaginary best friend is easily one of the strangest propositions at this year’s London Film Festival, but JoJo Rabbit is also one of the most delightful. Already the Peoples’ Choice Award winner at the Toronto Film Festival, Taika Waititi’s anarchic comedy drama shows the audience the perspective of war through the eyes of a 10-year old boy, and the result not only worryingly suggests how easily we absorb misinformation, but how much fun war can look when you don’t have to fight in one.
JoJo is an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth eager to learn the skills of soldiery with his friends. Here he’s learned to hate the Jews and love the Fuhrer who visits him regularly as a Jiminy Cricket-like confidant. When a slight accident with a grenade turns JoJo into an errand boy for a kindly local officer, JoJo is disappointed not to be doing more. But at home he discovers a stranger hiding in his sister’s bedroom who challenges all his preconceptions.
Set in the final six months of the World War Two, there is a wonderfully jaunty tone to Waititi’s film with vaudevillian characters and comedy scenarios that keep the laughs coming in the early scenes. It is cleverly satirical – often more broadly funny than films like Death of Stalin – while never shying away from the domestic cruelty of war.
In fact Waititi very skilfully exposes JoJo to the darker consequences of his beliefs, interrupting his boyish joy to show people hanging from a gallows in the town square, and later to feel the fear of a Gestapo home visit, before the full force of bombardment is brought home to the little boy who learns to understand the reality of his games.
Roman Griffin Davis absolutely carries the film as JoJo, conveying all the wide-eyed wonder and credulous enthusiasm of a lonely child throwing himself into his hobby with verve with excellent comic timing that makes for an enjoyable performance. As JoJo undergoes a slow but purposeful transformation Davis creates a sense of maturity as the absorption of new ideas, facts and realities shifts his perspective. There’s a very funny turn from Archie Yates as Hitler Youth pal Yorkie who turns up to steal scenes with an adorable performance.
It’s hard for the adults to compete but Scarlett Johansson has a cheeky warmth as JoJo’s mother Rosie with secrets of her own, Waititi himself plays imaginary Hitler with a camp exuberance and silly gestures but starts to darken the mood as the film changes tack. Best of all is Sam Rockwell as a slightly world-weary local Captain whose comic delivery lights-up every scene and you will wish he had so much more screen time for his joyous performance.
From Schindler’s List to Inglorious Basterds, the presentation of Nazi Germany during the Second World War is incredibly varied with Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit somewhere in between. Carefully balancing its outrageous imaginative elements with a real point to make about the myths and lies we use to mark out differences that widen the gaps between us, this film shows how very easy it is to be childishly enthusiastic about wars we’ve never fought.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October