The undying love I have for Polynesian Jewish director/actor/fashion icon/comedic legend Taika Waititi knows no bounds. Two of his previous films, “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014), a faux documentary about vampires who share an apartment in New Zealand, and “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017), the best MCU film of all time, consistently alternate in the top two spots for my favorite movie (depending on my mood/what day of the week it is). Waititi made my year-end roundup of “5 Jews Who Inspired Me in 2017,” and, spoiler alert, due to his new film, “Jojo Rabbit,” he’s going to make this year’s list too.
“JoJo Rabbit” is inspired by Christine Leunen’s 2004’s novel, “Caging Skies,” about a young Austrian boy who is an avid member of Hitler Youth and daydreams about Hitler, only to discover (gasp!) his parents are hiding a Jewish girl from the Nazis. In the film, 10-year-old Jojo is indeed a paragon of aryan childhood who is “really into swastikas” and has his own version of Hitler as an imaginary best friend. Waititi himself, in blue contacts and a ridiculous mustache, plays BFF Hitler. Jojo is a bit vulnerable—his father is off fighting somewhere, and he wants to fit in with the rest of the kids his age and make his fuhrer proud by throwing grenades and catching Jews. He relies on his imaginary friend to hype him up, make him feel brave and powerful and overcome what he views as his weaknesses.
Because this is a Waititi film, it’s funny as hell. Playing Jojo’s “Hitler,” Waititi got laughs from the audience every time he appeared onscreen. The rest of the cast is unbelievably great—the Nazi characters, including Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf, the always criminally underappreciated Alfie Allen (Theon in “Game of Thrones”) as Klenzendorf’s maybe-lover Finkel, Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm and Stephen Merchant as a Gestapo commander are truly next-level performances.
Thomasin McKenzie, as Elsa, the Jew hidden in the wall, brings a sarcastic ferocity to a role that could have just been a sad Jewish girl trope—probably because Waititi instructed her to watch “Mean Girls” as preparation for the role. Faced with having to live with a 10-year-old Nazi who constantly asks her things like, “Where does the queen Jew lay her eggs?” and “When do your horns grow in?” she delivers deadpan descriptions and illustrations of all the “Jewish secrets” Jojo needs for his exposé about the Jews, “YooHoo Jew.” (Elsa also invents and demonstrates a fake Jewish secret greeting that I will be utilizing from now until the day I die.)
Eleven-year-old Roman Griffin Davis, making his acting debut as Jojo, is profoundly relatable, especially when acting alongside Waititi and Scarlett Johansson. Johansson plays Jojo’s vivacious, snarky and heroic mother, Rosie. (An early scene in which she dismissively slaps Sam Rockwell across the face with her gloves was just magnificent.) Johansson brings unique joie de vivre to Rosie, the emotional core of integrity upon which the success of this film rests.
Waititi doesn’t do dramatic storytelling in a predictable way. But what he does very effectively here is use silliness, whimsy and visual jokes about ricocheting knives and malfunctioning Hitler clones to lull the viewer into a false sense of security, so that when there is, finally, a moment of shocking horror, the gut punch it delivers is that much more powerful.
I know plenty of folks out there have complaints about “Jojo Rabbit.” From the “Fetch my smelling salts! How can you make a comedy about Hitler?! It’s OFFENSIVE!” handwringing reviews to the jaded, “Do we really need ANOTHER Holocaust movie?” hot takes, I’ve read them, and I don’t care. Because during this movie, I both laughed out loud and almost burst into tears on several occasions. This may not have been the Holocaust movie for everyone, but it sure was the one for me.