Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a young boy in the Hitler Youth. He’s a devoted fascist who hates the evil Jews and has an imaginary friend, Hitler. After a terrible accident takes him out of service, he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johanson) is harbouring a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie). Caught between his loyalty to his mother and his Adolf, Jojo has some big decisions to make.
Watiti masterfully navigates the difficult territory of tragedy and comedy. This is a hilarious and deeply sad black comedy. The heavy moments land with devastating impact. The Nazis are absurd and the exaggeration of their ideologies is perfect, but the coat of their absurdity is not undermined. No matter how charming the characters are, they are not safe from the fascists.
The performances are perfect throughout the cast. Roman Griffin Davis is compelling, upsetting and charming as Jojo. The film argues that children, even those taught to hate, will instinctively relate to fellow human beings. The only way the Nazis can combat this is to invent a fantasy of the inhuman Jew. Much of the humour comes from the childish fantasy of their antisemitic nonsense.
Scarlett Johanson is effortlessly charming and charismatic as Jojo’s tough but deeply loving mother. Sam Rockwell plays the washed up and slightly disaffected Nazi military officer. He’s brilliant as the laconic reluctant leader who cares more than he let’s on. This is a film that achieves big things with small roles. Archie Yates as Jojo’s best friend is hilarious and completely authentic in his simple enthusiasm. Alfie Allen is the almost silent second in command but still has a definite character with pride and worries. Finally of course we have Taika Watiti as imaginary Hitler. He’s a child’s fantasy of what a great leader should be. He is also the manifestation of Jojo’s indoctrination. He gives Jojo confidence but is utterly delusional.
Chaplin famously said that he would not have made The Great Dictator if he had known about the holocaust. Watiti demonstrates why it’s important to do so. The evils of tyranny are perpetrated by arrogant buffoons whose personas and ideologies must be recognised as nonsense and ridiculed. Hatred is frightening but it’s also absurd and this film exposes that dichotomy. This comedy film is serious business.