Jojo Rabbit Film Review: Waititi Unveils WWII Comedic Satire

Enjoying its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Jojo Rabbit is a comedic satire which takes place in World War II Germany.

The film by Kiwi writer, director and actor Taika Waititi is based on Christine Leunens bestselling book Caging Skies. The film features an all-star cast including Rebel Wilson, Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson.

At TIFF 2019 Jojo Rabbit film reviews were split by critics. Some panned the film for making a comedy out of the Holocaust, while others raved for Waititi’s daring take on a troubled time. While Jojo Rabbit is likely to be one of the most controversial films of 2019, our love for its story stems from the scripts theme of love overpowering hate. Many TIFF 2019 critics compared Jojo Rabbit’s holocaust humour to Life is Beautiful, an Academy Award winning Italian film about a father who tries to make life on a concentration camp bearable for his son by finding humour during times of despair.

On the last day of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Jojo Rabbit was announced as the winner of the Grolsch Peoples Choice Award. It’s widely known in film circles that the winner of TIFF’s public prize makes the title a top contender at the Academy Awards. Past winners include Green Book, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and La La Land.

Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi and Scarlet Johansson star in the film Jojo Rabbit.
Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi and Scarlet Johansson star in the film Jojo Rabbit.

Jojo Rabbit Film Review

Inspired by Christine Leunens bestselling book Caging Skies, Taika Waititi crafted a hilarious and touching screenplay for Jojo Rabbit. The Kiwi filmmaker’s shooting style for the film is reminiscent of Wes Anderson, offering meticulously crafted scenes and sets paired with on-point comedic timing.

Drawing on his own Jewish heritage and experiences growing up surrounded by prejudice, writer-director Taika Waititi (whose mother is Jewish and father is Māori) makes a powerful statement against hate with a black satire of the Nazi culture that gripped the German psyche at the height of World War II.

Jojo Rabbit’s narrative is uniquely told through the eyes of a lonely young boy in Germany. While Jojo’s father is off at war, he’s taken charge as “man of the house,” while living with his mother, played by Scarlett Johansson. The story unfolds in the fictionalized town of Falkenheim, just as Jojo turns 10. He’s thrilled to finally have the chance to join Jungvolk, a Nazi youth camp, so he can prove how gung-ho he is for for Hitler.

Jojo’s adolescent worldview is flipped upside down when he discovers his mother Rosie is hiding a young Jewish girl in the family’s house. Roman Griffin Davis plays the patriotic Jojo, who’s conscience, an idiotic Adolf Hitler, is embodied by the film’s writer and director Taika Waititi. Adolf Hitler appears as an apparition throughout the Jojo Rabbit film, whenever the young protagonist is feeling insecure. Waititi’s rendering of Hitler through a boys eyes appears clownish and hare-brained. It’s Jojo’s lonely attempt to fill his life with a fatherly role whenever he needs advice.

At the heart of Jojo Rabbit is the a tale of one child being forced to confront his blind nationalism. The film forces audiences to think about how innocent children indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda might have felt during World War II. How would a child who’s been fed a litany of lies react when they realize the awful truth?

Jojo Rabbit cast and crew Q&A at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Jojo Rabbit’s Turning Point

Returning home after enduring an injury at Hitler Youth Camp, Jojo shockingly discovers his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl, the mysterious Elsa, in a secret wall in their home. Jojo’s initial reaction is complete shock, as he’s been warned of the danger of Jews by his German teachers…and now he finds one lurking under his own roof!

The turning point of the Jojo Rabbit film, is when the young boy finally gets to know Elsa as a person. The more he spends time with her, the quicker she becomes someone that Jojo couldn’t imagine anyone harming, especially his Nazi idols.

The film Jojo Rabbit offers a truly unique coming-of-age story, showing that when we find the courage to open our minds, we can discover the power of love. Waititi’s hope in making the Jojo Rabbit film was to upend his own comfort zones. With nationalism, anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance on the rise, the stakes of grabbing people’s attention felt sky-high. 

“I knew I didn’t want to make a straight-out drama about hatred and prejudice because we’ve become just so used to that style of drama,” Waititi explains. “When something seems a little too easy, I like to bring in chaos. I’ve always believed comedy is the best way to make an audience more comfortable. So, in Jojo Rabbit, I bring the audience in with laughter, and once they’ve dropped their guard, then start delivering these little payloads of drama that have serious weight to them.” 

Jojo Rabbit’s star Roman Griffin Davis explains the importance of the films message, “I remember I once mentioned something about a swastika to a friend and he didn’t know what it was. I told him it’s the Nazi logo and he didn’t even know what it looked like. So, I hope that this film is going to remind people of what happened in Nazi Germany with a different kind of a story than you have ever seen before. What I love most about the film is that even though it is about some heavy stuff, and stuff that’s really important, a lot of it is shown through humour and comedy.” 

Taika Waititi on How He Persuaded Hollywood to Make His Hitler Comedy Jojo Rabbit.

Making the Jojo Rabbit Film

Nazis have been parodied on screen since as early as the 1940s when they were still very much a global threat. Mel Brooks once said, “If you can reduce Hitler to something laughable, you win.” The film tradition stretches from Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Brooks (The Producers) and Tarantino (Inglorious Bastards).

The seed of the Jojo Rabbit film began with Waititi’s mother, a New Zealand native whose Russian Jewish family immigrated in the early 1900s. It was she who first read Christine Leunens’ Caging Skies and recounted to Waititi the story of a boy whose avid belief in Hitler is turned upside down when he discovers that his family is hiding a Jewish girl behind a false wall in the attic. 

Says Waititi: “The book is more of a drama, though it has comic moments. But I felt if I was going to tackle this subject, I had to bring my own personality and style to it. That meant more fantastical elements and obviously more humour, creating a kind of dance between drama and satire.” 

The indigenous filmmaker adds, “Most of the prejudice I’ve experienced has been because of the colour of my skin,” he explains. “Traditionally in New Zealand, there’s been prejudice against Māori people. I did experience that growing up, and I learned to kind of brush it off, which is not a great thing, but you do what you have to do. Still, I think I wound up subverting a lot of these feelings into comedy. That’s why I feel very comfortable poking fun at the people who think it’s clever to hate someone for who they are.” 

Waititi intentionally placed a resilient mother-son bond at the heart of his movie. He turned Rosie Betzler not only into a single mother, but also a defiant woman who decides that so long as ideals of empathy and tolerance are being pushed to the margins, she will work fearlessly to uphold them. Contrary to her young son, Rosie sees the poisonous world Hitler is forging. But that also means hiding the truth of her life from Jojo to keep him safe. She can only hope her boy comes to his senses. 

Since the film’s protagonist would require a young actor, the filmmaker first needed to find his star. Waititi and his casting team watched over 1,000 audition tapes, undertaking an exhaustive search that spanned from New Zealand and Australia to the United Kingdom, America, Canada and Germany.

The search came to an abrupt halt the minute they met 11-year-old British actor, Roman Griffin Davis. The young actor displayed a sophistication eerily beyond his years, how Jojo’s simple yearning to be accepted, admired and loved gets contorted into serving a grim and malicious agenda. 

To bring Jojo’s fictional hometown of Falkenheim to life, the production headed to Žatec and Úštěk, small towns in the Czech Republic—in an area that was at times considered part of Germany and was under German occupation in WWII. Here, in a place that was never bombed, pre-war buildings have kept alive that old-world, storybook look. 

Most of Jojo Rabbit’s interior sets were built on stages within Prague’s Barrandov Studios, a weighty spot for a WWII satire because during the occupation, that very same studio churned out frightening Nazi propaganda. “It felt like a kind of poetic justice to make Jojo Rabbit here,” notes production designer Ra Vincent, “as well as a kind of blessing of the ground and clearing a new path for anti-racist and anti-fascist beliefs to flourish.” 

Jojo Rabbit

Taika Waititi directs a riotous cast — including Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Rebel Wilson, Thomasin McKenzie, and newcomer Roman Griffin Davis — in this daring, touching, and comedic satire about a young German boy who discovers a Jewish girl hiding in his home and consults with his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler.

Date Created: October 18, 2019

Runtime: 108 min

  • Genre:
  • Thriller
  • Producers:
  • Carthew Neal,
  • Chelsea Winstanley,
  • Taika Waititi,
  • Director:
  • Taika Waititi
  • Writer:
  • Cast:
  • Roman Griffin Davis,
  • Scarlett Johansson,
  • Sam Rockwell,
  • Alfie Allen,
  • Stephen Merchant,
  • Rebel Wilson,
  • Taika Waititi,
  • Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie,
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