New Zealand-born Taika Waititi certainly isn’t the first filmmaker to mock Nazi Germany. Charlie Chaplin ridiculed Hitler in The Great Dictator, Mel Books lampooned him with Springtime for Hitler, as did Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful and Quentin Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds.
But Taika Waititi’s approach is unique. Set in the fictional town of Falkenheim in Germany during the closing months of W.W.II, he focuses on plucky 10 year-old Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), who is “massively into swastikas” and besotted with his imaginary friend, buffoonish Adolf Hitler (Waititi).
An avid member of Jungvolk of the Hitler Youth, Jojo eagerly heads off for training camp, only to be publicly humiliated by Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and book-burning Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) for not wringing the neck of a tiny rabbit.
Then, one day, Jojo discovers that his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), has been secretly harboring Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a frightened Jewish teenager, behind a wall in their home. Stunned that she doesn’t have horns, a forked tongue and a tail, he quizzes Elsa about Jews.
“We’re like you, but human,” Elsa explains, adding, “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a 10 year-old boy who likes dressing up in a funny uniform.”
Jojo is caught in a moral conundrum. If he turns in Elsa, he’s betraying his mother. If he doesn’t, he’s betraying his friend Adolf. And the film chronicles his gradual realization that everything he believes to be true about the Fatherland is a monstrous lie.
As delusional Jojo, Roman Griffin Davis is nothing short of amazing, along with Archie Yates as his best friend.
Loosely based on Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies, Waititi’s timely satire veers from playful parody to real-life terror, boldly treading the thin line between fantasy and drama.
FYI: On this father’s side, Taika Waititi is Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand; on his mother’s side, he’s Russian-Jewish.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Jojo Rabbit is an intriguing, edgy 8, reminding younger generations what happened more than 70 years ago.