Young Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) and his friend Yorki (Archie Yates) are part of the Deutsches Jungvolk Hitler Youth movement during the latter years of World War II. Spurred on by his imaginary friend Adolph Hitler (Taika Waititi), Jojo aims to be nothing but the perfect Nazi.
But his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has a dangerous secret. A young Jewish girl, Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), is hiding in the Betzler home and challenges everything Jojo believes in both the Nazi party and himself.
With Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) and Gestapo agent Deertz (Stephen Merchant) enforcing Hitler’s way, Jojo will have life-changing choices to make as the war comes closer and his actions help dictate who lives and who dies…
You can make a film set around the adoration of the Nazi party, it’s Führer and all the encompassing xenophobia, racism and joyful genocide either darkly humorous or touchingly emotive. Director Taika Waititi (of Thor: Ragnarok and The Hunt For The Wilderpeople fame) does both. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but at heart, it’s a film about love and humanity shining through dark times.
Young Roman Griffin Davis shines as ten-year-old Jojo, who misses his father and his deceased sister, and so finds solace with imaginary friend Hitler, a role Waititi clearly wanted to both write and play with over-zealous glee and foolishness. Davis shares much of the film alongside screen mum Scarlett Johansson and screen fren/emy Thomasin McKenzie, and all these moments are a delight. Kudos also to little Archie Yates – soon to be seen in the ‘Home Alone’ remake – who plays Jojo’s “second best friend” Yorki, coming across like a very young Nick Frost and probably the world’s worst but most adorable Nazi wannabe.
While the scenes back and forward with McKenzie are a little repetitive and slow repeating what each thinks a Jew or Nazi truly is outside of propaganda myth and lore, they are well-acted. It’s Johansson who really captures the scenes she is in, reminding us all just how good an actress she is away from the loud pomp of the Marvel universe. She embodies everything a mother dealing with the world on her shoulders does, but never once loses her smile or her step in keeping her son headstrong and ready for anything.
The blackest humour is injected courtesy of Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant, all taking various roles in the Nazi party and reminding Jojo about the “true” enemy and how to deal with them. Rockwell and Wilson, in particular, are like something from a Mel Brooks movie when they hand out pistols and knives to the kids or send them off to hug enemy soldiers without knowing a live hand grenade is strapped to their back. It’s dark humour at it’s best, but somehow scarily real in knowing what we do about the Nazi war machine and their ethics.
Waititi has an eye for detail, and everything here is as authentic as expected when it comes to World War II. The sets, the costumes, the music by Michael Giacchino. Everything works, from the Hitler Youth training camps to the ravaged finale where bombs and bodies fly and the horror of war is finally discovered by young Jojo, acted perfectly by all and featuring some of the best character development.
Dir: Taika Waititi
Scr: Taika Waititi
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Archie Yates, Taika Waititi
Prd: Carthew Neal, Chelsea Winstanley & Taika Waititi
DOP: Mihai Mălaimare Jr.
Music: Michael Giacchino
Country: United States
Run time: 108mins
This Fox Searchlight Pictures production is on general release across cinema’s nationwide from January 1st 2020.