Toronto International Film Festival unveils daring comedy satire ‘Jojo Rabbit’
From left, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, and Roman Griffin Davis

TORONTO—Certainly the hottest ticket at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was the daring comedy satire Jojo Rabbit by New Zealander comedian Taika Waititi. Tickets were sold out well in advance for this “over the top” comedy which ended up winning the People’s Choice Award—in a festival with more than 350 films!

The comedy takes place in 1944 Germany and centers around a fatherless 10-year-old boy who wants to be like all his friends who have joined the Nazi youth group. He is often accompanied by his imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler, in a challenging role played by the director himself. Like most young boys, Jojo wants to be in a club with his friends, going out on field trips every weekend, learning how to use knives and missile launchers, and having fun burning books. His mother, who on one hand promotes his involvement with friends, is secretly hiding a young Jewish girl under the stairway in their house, soon to be discovered by Jojo himself. That’s when the paradoxes start to develop, and as he befriends the girl, he begins to question his imaginary friend and what’s really going on.

Pitching the movie to film studios was a challenge for Waititi. It’s been an 8-year process making a comedy about Hitler and Nazism, and finding an actor willing to sacrifice his career playing the controversial role of one of the most despised figures in history. To his advantage, Waititi feels the timing played to his benefit, as the world shifts to the right and several major world leaders flirt with fascism.

There have been comparable films dealing with the scourge of Nazism in a comedic manner and piquing the wrath of the public. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator portrayed Hitler as a narcissistic buffoon, with the famous scene of Hitler dancing in his office with a large inflated globe of the world. In the same manner as JoJo Rabbit develops, Chaplin’s film comes to a deep realization of the horrors of Nazism. The film ends with one of the most powerful speeches in film history, with Chaplin as Hitler asking for the world to wake up from the insanity. Although Jojo Rabbit doesn’t end with such an overtly compelling plea, the comedy turns serious among the surrounding absurdity and forces the viewer to consider the destruction wrought by a system of hate and despair.

A more recent comparison could be made with Life is Beautiful, by the great Italian comedian/director, Roberto Benigni, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1997. Inscribed in history’s memory is the scene of Benigni leaping over rows of chairs to accept his award. The story is about a Jewish librarian and his son who are incarcerated in a Nazi death camp. In order for them to survive, the father concocts a fun imaginary reality to help his son survive the horrors surrounding them. The film had its detractors who felt that such a serious subject should not be handled through comedy.

The same goes for Jojo Rabbit, an even more absurd display at comedy addressing a serious subject. The imaginary Hitler dances around, makes funny faces and says stupid stuff in a hilarious manner. The boy, who is living in a country engulfed in outrageous behavior and intolerance, is at first oblivious to the crimes of Nazis but gradually starts to understand the reality.

Most of the roles are played “over the top” with some outstanding performances by Waititi himself. The film is also graced with some of the finest child actors in the business. Jojo is perfectly played by Roman Griffin Davis in his first role in films! His character develops an attraction to the first Jewish girl he’s known, played by Thomasin McKenzie, and wonders why people treat her differently. He also begins to better love and understand his mother, played by Scarlett Johansson, who is “saving” her son by encouraging him to embrace the normally accepted behavior of youth in Nazi times, while concurrently committing one of the most compassionate and dangerous “crimes” of the times. There is another wonderful relationship developed between Jojo and his chubby friend, Yorki, played by the endearing Archie Yates. They share the wonders of the world while oblivious to the horrors surrounding them.

The extreme comedic approach is not for everyone, but at its best, the film subtly reveals how innocent youth are indoctrinated into extreme forms of intolerance and hatred, and offers an example of how some people survived by eventually “doing the right thing.”

There’s only one flaw at the end, where a jeep with an American flag, filled with American soldiers, goes careening through town symbolizing that the madness has ended solely due to the efforts of the United States. Another slam at the Soviet Union—that sacrificed millions and liberated most of Germany at the end of the war—was a comment that implied that the Soviets, who fought back the Nazis with full force, have replaced Jews as the “new enemy.” They already were: A clear misunderstanding of the forces involved in shaping one of the most tragic periods in world history.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.