You know, we’ve had good luck with the first films we’ve chosen to see at the cinema in any given year. Last year it was The Favourite; the year before that, Hostiles. And 2020 is already off to a good start with the inimitably brilliant Jojo Rabbit.
Taika Waititi, the only good-looking director the world has ever known and also coincidentally one of the best, has always had a little anarchy in his work. His previous movies, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Boy, explore his native New Zealand as backdrops for idiosyncratic and unique coming-of-age stories. Even when he was brought on to direct for Marvel, one of the most crushingly formulaic studios out there, he managed to make a quietly subversive story about the immigrant experience and societies built on exploitation.
So it makes perfect sense that Waititi would see a story like the one in Caged Skies (the book upon which Jojo Rabbit is based) and see it as a challenge for his own uniquely-applied style. Jojo Rabbit follows Johannes, a ten-year-old-boy, as he navigates the trials and tribulations of his burgeoning puberty and trying to find his place in a more grown-up world. A more grown-up world that just happens to also be Nazi Germany. A Moonreich Kingdom, if you will.
Set in Berlin shortly before the end of the war, Jojo Rabbit is truly an inspired take on the rhetoric of hatred and violence that forms the basis of Nazi ideology: to follow an adult who so unquestioningly believed in these values would land us with another American History X, but navigating it through the eyes of a child gives Waititi (who also wrote the script) the chance to delve into the obvious and utter ridiculousness of the whole affair. There’s nothing to make something so terrifying look so stupid as to have a kid spouting out the absurd talking points like playground gossip to his imaginary friend Hitler (who is played by Waititi in one of his most ridiculous and hilarious comic performances yet). Like so many of his movies, Waititi populates this one with a stack of great performances from superb actors: Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell are standouts, but Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen along with a stack of great child actors fill out the world at large.
But, to be honest, Jojo Rabbit is not a comedy first. Waititi might be known for his spry, sly humour, but this is probably his most gutting movie to date. To see these children so indoctrinated into such violence and such horror because, like all children, they just want a place to fit in is raw and frightening and impossibly plausible: the opening credits score and shoot Nazi propaganda like a docu on the Summer of Love, a totally unsettling contrast that runs through the first half of the film as a whole. As Jojo begins to become more disillusioned with the Nazi regime, they take on that distorted horror of a child’s mind – Stephen Merchant’s Gestapo officer suddenly towers at ten feet tall, and when Berlin begins to suffer as the war draws to a bloody close, the glossy veneer starts to fade. If this is a comedy, then it’s one in the vein of The Death of Stalin – one with a point to prove and something to say.
I don’t want to give away too much about the plot details here, since I think there are a few that work best with no run-up and I wouldn’t want to spoil that for the people who haven’t seen it yet. But suffice to say that Waititi manages to unfold a truly affecting, unexpected, and totally original take on the allure of fascism, and, more importantly, its affect on the people who live with it day-to-day. Witty, warm, and totally wretched, Jojo Rabbit is already one of the films of the year to beat. And it couldn’t have come from anyone but Taika Waititi.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Digital Spy)