(This review of “Jojo Rabbit” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 19 December 2019.)
Directed and written by Taika Waititi, based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens; starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson
What do you get when you cross iconic Jewish film-maker Mel Brooks (The Producers) with the late comic actor and film-maker Charlie Chaplin? If the year is 2019 and the film is Jojo Rabbit, it’s Jewish-Maori film director Taika David Waititi, who is also known as Taika Cohen. A 2017 “New Zealander of the Year” and self-styled “Polynesian Jew”, Waititi’s film credits include the New Zealand classic Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Marvel comics blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok.
But Jojo Rabbit is something different. Waititi took a great artistic risk in casting himself as Hitler (yes, you read that correctly) in this black satiric comedy set in Nazi Germany’s final years.
Waititi’s character is the imaginary friend of 10-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (played by a wide-eyed Roman Griffin Davis), who lives with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), as the finale of the war slowly closes around them.
Jojo has been inculcated into becoming a fierce young Nazi, although his unwillingness to kill a rabbit marks him out as unsuitable for Nazi brutality. His world is thrown into disarray when he discovers that his mother (father is away at war, unheard of for some time) has hidden Elsa, a young Jewish woman (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in the family’s attic. Thus Jojo is forced to confront his prejudices and shield both Elsa and his mother.
Based on the novel Caging Skies by American-New Zealand writer Christine Leunens, whose Belgian grandfather spent time in a German labour camp, we have to cast back to Chaplin’s 1941 film The Great Dictator – in which he played both a Jewish barber in the ghetto and “Adenoid Hynkel” – to find an equivalent.
The supporting role casting of JoJo Rabbit is inspired: Sam Rockwell plays a Nazi captain, and Rebel Wilson plays a Nazi camp counsellor. Shooting in Prague – not exactly typical German architecture – assists in giving the film an offbeat, skewed feel. Although unlikely to reach the classic status of Chaplin, Taika Waititi offers one of the most creative films of the year.
Read The Times of Israel‘s list of 13 Jewish actors who have previously played Nazis on screen, starting with Moe Howard in 1940, and including Jack Benny, Conrad Veidt (Casablanca), Otto Preminger, Peter Sellers, Mel Brooks, Joel Grey and Harvey Keitel.