Jacob Richardson | 9/01/2019
Waititi navigates a risky take on Hitler and the Nazi regime to give us a tale of love, loss and growth for a young boy.
Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a young Nazi fanatic in Germany in the final year of the war. His father is away at war and his sister has recently died, leaving only his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) and he. Oh, and his imaginary version of Hitler (Taika Waititi) who funnels Nazi propaganda and Jojo’s own self-doubt into a uniform-clad imaginary friend. An accident at Captain Klenzendorf’s (Sam Rockwell) Nazi camp leaves Jojo scarred, and house-bound for a while. While cooped up at home, Jojo discovers his mother’s secret; that she is keeping a young Jewish girl called Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hidden in the attic. Jojo, although indoctrinated to be repulsed by her, finds himself slowly developing a friendship with her, and in the process learning that not everything he has heard is true, and that he has to define his own moral compass.
Waititi navigates a very, very thin line of acceptability for this film. One enters worried that it will be in poor taste, falling into a distasteful comedic portrayal of horrors or a callous retrospective reconditioning of Hitler himself. Thankfully, Waititi focuses on the boy Jojo, and his fight out of indoctrination. Certainly, he showcases both the terror of the Nazi regime and the dastardly cowardice of those helping. At the same time, however, he is always showing the time through the lens of Jojo himself, whose childlike demeanour, evident lack of conviction in his beliefs, and journey from hate to love, enables the perfect delivery of Waititi’s message.
Davis is the perfect child for the role, bringing pathos and emotion when needed, and lighthearted humor and slapstick comedy when required. McKenzie is also incredible; strength and vulnerability shining through in equal parts. Johansson and Rockwell both make impressions, and Alfie Allen less so.
Waititi in his role as Adolf has certainly captured the media zeitgeist in the lead up to release, and his portrayal is undoubtedly focussed once again through the eyes of a child. It never feels like a real depiction of Hitler, but always rather takes the lens of the imaginary friend. In that respect, the tone never feels egregious, but rather playful and entertaining, and brings a lot of laughs.
Perhaps the greatest accolade for a film like this, so dominated by the media circus around Waititi’s role as Hitler, is that one leaves the cinema not really recollecting it too strongly. The film is strong enough, in its story of two enemies coming together and learning to respect one another, building mutual understanding, trust and love, that Waititi’s role, upon a completed viewing, feels almost redundant. That’s not at all because Waititi is bad in it; just because his screenplay and direction are so good, they craft a story we actually care about without the need for gimmickry.
Waititi walks a fine line, but delivers a touching and impactful film full of laughs and light.