Written By: Daniel Kinsley
It seems fair to say that few filmmakers alive would have the audacity to attempt a coming-of-age film (and a comedy, at that!) set in Nazi Germany, and even fewer still would have the abilities to actually pull it off. And yet, writer-director-actor Taika Waititi has done just that. Thanks to the success of Thor Ragnarok (2017) Waititi was able to utilize some of his newfound Marvel clout to make the ultimate pivot into “one for them, one for me” territory. Horror and comedy are two of the most subjective genres in any art form; what a feat it is to make someone laugh, or conversely to terrify them, and yet Jojo strikes a deft balance by managing both. While the subject matter will certainly be divisive (and in some cases, understandably so) it is handled with more care than the “Hitler comedy” elevator pitch may convey; effortlessly mixing hilarity and heartbreak.
Loosely adapted from the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, the film takes place in a small town in Nazi-occupied Germany. Ten-year-old Jojo Betzler (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis) is a lonely zealot who spends much of his time espousing the many virtues of Nazism, a habit which is supported in part by his imaginary friend, none other than Adolf Hitler (Taika Watiti). Jojo hopes to find a sense of purpose by joining a Hitler Youth Camp led by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) where he will learn how to be a man. During a training exercise gone awry, Jojo suffers a terrible injury and is sent home where he begins to spend more time at home with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). While snooping through the empty house, he discovers Elsa, a young Jewish refugee (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his attic, and everything begins to change.
Throughout his filmography, Waititi has proven himself not only incredibly adept at balancing tonal shifts, but also at drawing out strong, genuine performances from child actors. To carry a film like this would be a big ask for plenty of actors, but first-timer Roman Griffin Davis is tremendous as the titular Jojo, believably navigating a world in which he desperately wants to fit even as circumstances force him to question his deeply-held beliefs. Similarly, Thomasin McKenzie (who had a breakout performance of her own last year’s Leave No Trace) is incredible as Elsa, finding so many small grace notes in playing a young woman wise beyond her years who refuses to play the victim. Sam Rockwell seems to have found himself typecast as of late (thanks to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri ) but if the role is at all familiar, it hardly matters when he is so effortlessly great. As wonderful as these performances are, there is a real case to be made that Rosie is the beating heart of the film. After a decade playing Black Widow and mostly starring in tent-pole misfires, audiences may have forgotten just how good Johansson really is. It is the best role she has had in years, and it is not even close. The chemistry she shares with Davis and McKenzie is wildly different, but no less electric, and she suffuses the screen with a sense of compassion and joy that the other characters seem to be lacking. Were it not for the major awards-buzz chasing her performance in the upcoming Marriage Story (2019) this writer for one would be banging the drum for Johansson to be in the supporting actress race come Oscar time.
If making the film itself was a gamble, the half-Māori half-Jewish Waititi doubled down by casting himself as the imaginary Hitler. Even as a big fan of the filmmaker, it was difficult not to wonder if he could make it work. Fortunately, the native Kiwi finds the right way to deploy his presence, acting as a manifestation of Jojo’s inner conflict about what kind of man he wants to be. While it may seem strange to play a monster for laughs, Waititi does just that; his Hitler is mostly a buffoon, but not one lacking in a pernicious effect on Jojo. In a lesser work, it is a role that could have distracted or overshadowed from what the film gets right, but here he seems to know when to dial it up and when to pull back at all the right times.
For some viewers, any comedy about an event as horrifying as the Holocaust will strike a nerve, no matter how good its intentions. Those folks are not likely to be swayed by this film, and the only real criticism this writer could level at the film is that by making the Nazi characters such caricatures, it is in a way rendering their message far more toothless than it was in reality. In today’s political climate, with white nationalism again on the rise, one could argue that a film about Nazis has a responsibility to portray the full extent of the dangers of taking the subject too lightly. On the other hand, it seems unnecessary (at least to this writer) to prescribe such a responsibility to a film that manages to so convincingly portray a transformation toward love and compassion while also mercilessly skewering the ideas behind Nazism. The film has earned comparisons (favorable and otherwise) to the works of Wes Anderson thanks to its at-times-whimsical approach; however, the effect is a byproduct of the perspective of its young protagonist, rather than the film taking the subject matter lightly. While no one in their right mind would argue that we should forget our history, it seems similarly foolhardy to dismiss the potential catharsis of laughter, or the accessibility of probing deeper on such an enormously heavy subject by way of a softer touch. In other words, when confronted with horror, is it necessary for the viewer to suffer in order for its effect to be consequential? While the answer will vary for each viewer, for this writer, Waititi’s anti-hate satire is a triumph made no less meaningful because of how hard it might make you laugh. One of the year’s boldest films is also one of its best.