Reviews: Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit,
Directed by Taika Waititi,
Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Archie Yates

The latest from one of my favourite creators, the Kiwi director and actor Taika Waititi (What We Do In the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarök), Jojo Rabbit, based on Christine Leunens’ book Caging Skies, brings with it some controversy for using humour and fantasy elements to depict the Nazi regimes, from Hitler Youth teams to the Gestapo (a fun turn from Stephen Merchant with just a touch of the old Herr Flick about it) to a cartoonish version of the Fuhrer, and even opening credits that conflate Beatlemania screaming crowds with the crowds adoring Hitler. Some seem to think this detracts from the horror of that regime or the historical events it is based on. After catching a preview screening

I have to disagree – first off, it is Taika Waititi, so surely you expect some delightfully skewed (and often dark) humour, even in the face of awful events? Criticising a Waititi movie for those elements is like saying Gene Kelly danced too much in Singing in the Rain. Secondly, I think the humour and fantasy elements were well-used – some for outright comedic effect, but many to counterpoint the barbarity of the Nazi regime, of the brainwashing of children to hate others as different and sub-human, of a state which doesn’t serve its people but consumes them in a hate and fear-filled spiral. Debuting at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, these criticisms by some didn’t stop the film doing well and winning the festival’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award.

As you can probably gather from this, I enjoyed the film, but I am an admirer of Waititi’s approach – if his style and humour isn’t your thing then this isn’t for you, but for those who do there is a lot to enjoy here – the humour and the more fantastical elements (not least Hitler – played by Waititi – being Jojo’s childhood imaginary friend) are grounded by the events of the dying days of World War Two, from the indoctrination of children through propaganda, misinformation, lies and the spread of hatred, the ever-present fear of being suspected of not being Germanic enough and getting a call from the Gestapo, of seeing your own country go so insane with a hate-driven regime that it trains eleven year old children to use as cannon-fodder.

As we watch young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his best pal Yorki (Archie Yates, who reminded me – in a good way – of a very young Nick Frost) trying to come to terms with the reality of the Nazi regime as he sees supposed traitors strung up from a gallows in the town square (his mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, forces him to look at it, to see what the Nazi regime really does) to finding his mother has secretly hidden a young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home to save her. Jojo is ten – he has been raised in a Germany controlled by the Nazis, indoctrinated since he was a tiny boy to believe in the Aryan supremacy, of the conspiracy of others (especially Jews), conditioned to think as the state wants him to.

Scarlett Johansson is superb as his life-affirming mother Rosie, clearly loving her son more than anything in the world and yet wondering where did the little boy who ran to her because he was scared of thunder go, when did he turn into this small, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Nazi in a miniature uniform, spouting party propaganda. While you could take much of Jojo Rabbit as an odd, slightly surreal take on the brutalities of that regime, it seemed to me you could also read the film in a number of other ways, from a comment on toxic masculinity (boys being told how to be men mostly through hiding emotions, being “strong”, brutal, pitiless), or the way such propaganda spreads hate through our society, especially to the younger, more impressionable – in Rosie’s anguished musings over how her beloved wee boy became this fervent Nazi I was reminded of an article by a mother in the US whose previously well-behaved, loving teen son absorbed right-wing hate-group material online and changed drastically in much the same way.

Johansson steals many scenes, a mother in the worst of circumstances, trying to salvage her wee boy from the hateful poison put into his young head, to protect a young girl who reminds her of her own lost daughter, of her husband supposedly lost on the Italian front somewhere, of her country gone mad, and yet she does so many happy little things to make life more bearable, to make Jojo smile. It reminded me in some ways of Roberto Benigni in the remarkable Life is Beautiful. The relationship that develops between Jojo and Elsa is also nicely handled – it doesn’t feel too forced and it did feel to me like the way a child would see the world, not an adult trying to speak as a child. The always brilliant Sam Rockwell, playing wounded army captain Klenzendorf may have a supporting role, but it is Rockwell, so it is beautifully underplayed, his damaged soldier moving from caricature of the war-crazy retired warrior to something more human, almost a father figure for Jojo.

Yes, this is an unusual beast, and I do understand when some criticise the cartoonish and humorous elements depicting the Nazis, but I don’t think those do reduce the reality of what happened. As I said at the start I think if anything the humour and fantastical elements contrast against the brutality and make it stand out more. And we do have a long tradition of using film to lampoon Nazis, after all – Bugs Bunny did it for the war effort in the 40s, the great Mel Brooks has lampooned them many times and even the Blues Brothers had their inept Illinois Nazis to ridicule. In an era where it feels like far-right hatred is expanding in so many countries, I think Jojo Rabbit may be portraying a historical period, but there is an awful lot of contemporary issues which we can see woven in there.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot,
Directed by Robert D Krzykowski,
Starring Sam Elliott, Aidan Turner, Caitlin FitzGerald, Larry Miller

Several things drew me to this film: it went down well at its FrightFest debut (always a good sign), it features the excellent Sam Elliott, and, well, come on, really, how could I resist a film with a title like that?? Other than those things though, I knew very little about this film in advance, which is something of a rarity these days, and I really didn’t know what to expect at all – high-jinks? Satire? Crazy silliness? With that title you can see why you might suspect that sort of approach, but actually no, this is a very unusual piece of film work that ploughs it own furrow, at its own pace and with its own style, and I applaud all involved for sticking to their approach, because it delivered an absolute wee gem of a film (and naturally some quality Filmic Moustache from Elliott!).

Calvin Barr (Elliott), is an older gentleman, a World War Two veteran now living peacefully in a small town in New England. As with many of us, as the years advance he finds himself more and more thinking of the past than the present, much less the future, and while his body may sit in his favourite armchair or the bar stool of his local pub, his mind is increasingly elsewhere, thoughts drifting back to his youth, to what he had to do during the war, and also to his pre-war life, the quietly satisfying peace of his small town, falling in love with local teacher Maxine (Caitlin Fitzgerald from Masters of Sex), with Poldark heart-throb Aidan Turner playing the younger Calvin.

It’s into this present-day, quiet, fairly lonely life that agents of the US and Canadian governments intrude, asking him to take on a new mission – the legendary Bigfoot exists, and appears to have become infected with a deadly virus that it is spreading. For now it is contained in an isolated wilderness area, but if it escapes this containment the disease will spread, and they have no cure – they are looking at a possible end of civilisation-level pandemic. No others have been able to track and kill the Bigfoot, none have returned, and so this former special operations soldier, the man they sent to assassinate Hitler, is the only one they can turn to, despite his age, he is, once more, tasked with defending civilisation.

And yes, he did indeed complete that mission and kill Hitler – and no, that’s not a spoiler, given it is in the title of the film! You may well wonder how is it that he could have assassinated the Fuhrer since that clearly deviates from recorded history – so is this an alternate history reality? A time-travel paradox or similar? Nope, and I am not going to spoil it for you by explaining how they can have had Calvin kill Hitler in the 1940s but still be true to history, save to say they do come up with an explanation that works fine, allowing the film its conceit of a soldier killing Hitler without contradicting real history.

However, those two strands of the narrative – the wartime exploits of young Calvin and the present-day mission to find the Bigfoot before it can spread the virus – are not really what The Man Who Killed Hitler is about, they are just the narrative framing on which Krzykowski paints a gently-paced exploration of a man’s life, his younger self’s hopes, his older self’s regrets, and the way life can change everything you wanted, everything you planned, especially where war is concerned. “I never wanted to kill a man,” Calvin tells his brother Ed (Larry Miller), “Even if he had it coming.”

As we see more memories of the wartime mission, and the pre-war courting of Maxine contrasted with Elliott’s older Calvin we piece together his story and how the war changed everything, taking him away from the woman he wanted to marry and settle down with, how it lead to this quiet, thoughtful man having to kill and discovering he was good at it, quiet, methodical, making him a good agent even though he hates the idea of it, how it was never the same again afterwards. There’s an echo here in older Calvin of William Munny in Unforgiven, an older man carrying a lifetime of regret for past deeds, although in Calvin’s case he was battling the forces of evil, not an outlaw like Munny, but killing still takes a toll regardless, even if in a righteous cause.

It’s not hard to see Calvin as representing so many young men who answered the call from small towns in America, Canada, Britain and so many other lands, young lads who had been brought up decently, who had been taught Thou Shalt Not Kill but then were forced to do just that again and again during the war to protect the free world. Young lads who came back as men who had seen and done too much (those that got to come back, at least), changed inside, rarely talking about it but forever altered by the memories and guilt. Elliott has a way of carrying a quiet, reserved, dignified air to his characters and that works perfectly in this role (so much so I wonder if the role was written for him?) – no anguished emotional outbursts here, instead Elliott signifies the inner turmoil of Calvin through tiny expressions and body language, some great acting craft here using such little movements to express so much of the character’s inner thoughts and feelings.

This is a wonderfully unusual gem of a film, a richly emotional palette of hope and regret, youth and old age, carried very much on the shoulders of Elliott’s quiet performance, unfolding a piece at a time at a satisfyingly gentle pace, slowly bringing us into the world of this reserved veteran.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot is released by Sparky Pictures on digital from April 15th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from May 6th.