- Emma Simmonds
- 7 October 2019
LFF 2019: Taika Waititi's conceptually courageous wartime comedy pulls it off with charm
Nazism is tricky terrain for a comedy, to put it mildly, so a daffy take on Hitler is really pushing it. But Taika Waititi isn't just any old director; the New Zealander's films (which include What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople as well as Thor: Ragnarok) brim with affection for outsiders. Born to a Maori father and part-Jewish mother, Waititi tells the story of a brainwashed German boy with panache, poignancy, and abundant absurdity.
An obedient little Nazi who's 'massively into swastikas', ten-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) seems lost to his German resistance mother Rosie (a marvellous Scarlett Johansson); she cuts quite the figure in her jaunty attire, her lust for life reignited by the prospect of peace. Fully buying into the party line and with his father away fighting, the outwardly fanatical but secretly gentle Jojo has reinvented Hitler as an avuncular mucker who steers him through turmoil. Assuming the role himself, the Führer becomes one of Waititi's signature oddballs, spouting motivational messages as an endlessly unlikely imaginary friend, while keeping his more frightening side initially under wraps.
Although reality impactfully intrudes, the film – which differs in tone significantly from its source novel Caging Skies, by Christine Leunens – is steeped in sumptuously coloured, semi-fantastic stylings that prioritise nostalgia for childhood over the horror of war; the spectacular production design has Wes Anderson-levels of charm and attention to detail (the training camp evoking Moonrise Kingdom in particular). Davis shines in his acting debut and memorable turns from Thomasin McKenzie, Stephen Merchant, Rebel Wilson and Sam Rockwell – hilarious as a one-eyed officer who's not as scary as he seems – add to the glorious patchwork.
For some, the subject should be no laughing matter, but Waititi ridicules Nazi ideology with aplomb and his brand of winningly juvenile humour underpinned by sweetness is an ideal fit for a child's-eye view of events. There's a spectacularly funny final send-off for 'Adolf' but there are moments of crushing sadness and dawning realisation, too, that are enough to take your breath away. And, as Jojo journeys toward enlightenment and reconnects with his humanity, it's actually rather beautiful.
Screening on Sat 5, Sun 6 and Mon 7 Oct as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. General release from Fri 3 Jan.