Johannes Betzler, aka Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), looks like a Nazi, walks like a Nazi, and talks like a Nazi. But his mum knows he’s not a Nazi – he’s a very naughty boy! A ten-year-old German boy, to be exact, in Germany, in World War 2.
It’s a good time to be a Nazi, hurrah!
Like all the best 10-year-olds, Jojo has an imaginary friend, only Jojo’s imaginary friend just happens to be Hitler (Taika Waititi, who also directs). He’s also got a real friend (although Jojo’s not too happy about getting friendzoned, but more of that later) – a Jewish teenage girl who hides in the attic. No of course she’s not Anne Frank, don’t be ridiculous! She’s Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), Jojo’s dead sister’s pal, stashed away in the attic walls for safekeeping by Jojo’s mum Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Apart from literally saving Elsa’s life, Rosie acts as a kind of substitute mum, complete with advice about growing into a woman: Look a tiger in the eye! Although Rosie tells Elsa she has never looked a tiger in the eye, we find out later that she does just that on a regular basis.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well. Quite a lot, actually, but in terms of filmmaking – not much. Kiwi multitalent and director extraordinaire, Taika Waititi, has achieved the impossible: an off-the-wall coming-of-age slapsticky fantasy wartimy satire comedy tragedy drama… thing. With themes of love, loss, friendship, belonging, courage, poetry (rather dodgily translated Rilke – but that’s a blog post for another day), oh and did I mention love. It really shouldn’t work but somehow… it does.
What’s the rabbit got to do with it?
Jojo fails to kill a rabbit in a Hitler Youth initiation test – but then realises what he needs to do is be more rabbit himself. Yes, be more rabbit! You know, sneaky, agile, hiding in holes. Following an incident involving a hand grenade, this seems to backfire (literally) at first, but in the end turns out a successful survival plan. Bit by bit, the human side of (most of) the characters reveals itself. Jojo’s other real-life friend, Yorkie (Archie Yates), is a boy of Jojo’s own age at last, and, like his chocolate bar namesake, pure sweet, chunky delight. Demoted Hitler Youth drill sergeant Klenzendorf, aka ‘Captain K’ (Sam Rockwell), turns out to have a penchant for flamboyant uniforms, and in moments of increasing homoerotic tenderness, his beady glass eye on his Unter-Nazi sidekick Freddie Finkel (Alfie Allen). Who knew!
I knew those book-burning skills would come in handy one day
Through falling in love with Elsa, Jojo realises that he’s been brainwashed about the Jews, and about a whole lot of other things too. Good job he loves book-burning – he can start by torching his own opus magnus, the educational picture book ‘Joohoo Jew: An exposé about Jews’. Über-Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) (“Heil Hitler guys! I’ve had 18 kids for the Reich!“), and Herr Deertz from the Gestapo Office (Stephen Merchant – see what they did there?), don’t see the error of their ways, but then at least some of the Nazis need to stay baddies, so, fair enough. When the war comes to an end, we hit a crossroads: obviously, this is a good thing all round, but for Jojo it also spells the end of his time with Elsa. And seeing he’s in the throes of a major crush, he may be tempted to spin out the war narrative just a bit longer…
Fuck off Hitler
In Christine Leunens’ bestseller of 2008, Caging Skies, on which the film is based, Jojo doesn’t tell Elsa that the war is over for quite a while, so he can keep her all for himself for longer. Like in The Invention of the Curried Sausage (yes I know it’s also vaguely similar to Goodbye Lenin, but that’s about East Germany not WW2, so the Currywurst wins). Waititi teeters on the edge for a moment, but then decides not to venture into child kidnap territory (to be clear, that’s kidnap by a child, of a slightly older child. Wrong on so many levels). I was grateful for not having to watch Jojo’s sinister side unfold (not counting the unfortunate Nazi phase), but also just a tiny bit disappointed at the missed opportunity of a twist, and with it, complexity. In the end, people did what they could, looked a tiger in the eye, and danced when they’re free. Thankfully, Hitler didn’t dance – it’s not The Producers. He did fuck off though, as told to by Jojo. It’s a bad time to be a Nazi – hurrah!