Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This film made a lot of press back in September when it won the People’s Choice Award at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival. The reason that this specific award is noteworthy is because films that win that top prize at TIFF have the greatest chance of being nominated at the Oscars for Best Picture. Films that win that top prize at TIFF even have the greatest chance of actually taking the Oscar for Best Picture. That was certainly the case for last year’s top TIFF winner, which was Green Book (2018). I’ve heard some people say that this year’s top TIFF winner is comparable to Green Book. It’s not to say that this film is the same as Green Book or that it’s even what’s called a twin film, but there are striking similarities. The tone of this comedic film, written and directed by Taika Waititi, adapting the novel by Christine Leunens, is more wacky and silly than the tone of Green Book, but there are still things here than makes it feel in lock-step with that Peter Farrelly Oscar-winner.
Criticisms of Green Book included how it chose to tell its story about race relations and how it relegated its minority or discriminated character. It chose to tell its story about race relations between racist white people and exploited black people through the lens or point-of-view of the racist, white people or specifically one racist, white person. Green Book was also criticized because it never dealt with the real-life person’s family and arguably misrepresented them in the narrative, which is an artist’s prerogative. Yet, that misrepresentation can’t be considered in a vacuum when put next to what the film is doing otherwise. In various ways, Waititi’s film is doing similar things. It chooses to tell its story about race relations between Nazi Germans and persecuted Jewish people in World War II through the lens or point-of-view of a Nazi German. The minority or discriminated person here isn’t as relegated as the minority in Green Book, but there is similar dismissal of the minority’s family and supplanting of that family for the white one.
Roman Griffin Davis in his feature debut stars as Johannes Betzler aka Jojo, a 10-year-old German boy living in Nazi Germany who is attending a Hitler Youth Group. He’s happy to do so. He runs with enthusiasm toward the group. He is completely indoctrinated to the Nazi way of thinking. For example, he cheers at the idea of burning books. He is also Adolf Hitler’s biggest fan. Waititi even intersperses newsreel footage, depicting the fandom toward Hitler as akin to the fandom toward the Beatles music group.
His one redeemable quality is that he’s not as blood-thirsty as his peers or even the older boys and men who not only want to kill but enjoy killing. Yet, his willingness or even aptitude to kill might not be totally absent. Jojo is first tested with killing a bunny rabbit with his bare hands. Later, he’s tasked with throwing a hand grenade and he musters up the courage to do that. His resistance to harm a defenseless and cute, innocent animal doesn’t exonerate him from racist beliefs or feelings he harbors. There are also plenty of children raised on farms who learn how to slaughter chickens and pigs. It doesn’t make them bad people.
Scarlett Johansson (Avengers: Endgame and Lost in Translation) co-stars as Rosie Betzler, the mother to Jojo. She’s a single mom whose husband went to fight in the war but from whom hasn’t been heard in a while. He could be presumed dead. Some presume he was a coward and deserted his fellow German troops. Her husband’s stance on Nazism is unclear in that regard, but Rosie’s stance is clear. She pretends to be on the side of the Nazis when she’s around the adults, but between her and her son, she resists their philosophy and particularly their antisemitism. She doesn’t show her resistance to her son fully because of his ardent stance, but in small ways, she tries to preach against it to him. She’s strong, funny and a total delight in that regard.
She’s not introduced at first. She doesn’t appear until almost 20 minutes or so into the film. The film begins as a kind of Nazi-version of Moonrise Kingdom (2012). That dissipates and the film becomes something akin to Little Man Tate (1991). Actually, what the film becomes is something akin to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) meets The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). In terms of quality, this film is probably somewhere in between those two.
Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) also co-stars as Elsa Korr, a Jewish girl who is hiding in the house where Jojo lives. In a weird quirk, her presence is known to both Jojo and his mom, but both are keeping the secret of her presence, even from each other, despite both Jojo and his mom knowing it. Elsa is able to have conversations with both as a result. Elsa is a very smart, very strong and very capable, young girl. Yet, she’s also heartbroken about her circumstances and we see her express that, as well as her fear of being caught by the Nazis. Her performance is great and what she brings to the role mostly overcomes the fact this story isn’t told from her perspective.
Yet, the majority of the jokes here are just a series of Jewish stereotypes, gross ones and horrible tropes, which represent the height of antisemitism. Mostly, these jokes come from Jojo and other Nazis, which are the majority of the characters here, just rattling off these stereotypes and antisemitic tropes. Doing so was perhaps funny the first or second time. The fact is Waititi keeps doing so, over and over. It got repetitive and dull real fast.
Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do in the Shadows) plays a version of Adolf Hitler. His Adolf is actually a figment of Jojo’s imagination. He exists to reinforce the Nazi ideas and prejudices. He also stands as a kind of father-figure or brother-figure encouraging Jojo to be more antisemitic. It’s a clever device. Waititi is wacky and silly, and it’s akin to what he was doing in What We Do in the Shadows. Unfortunately, it’s obvious where this device is going to go. In other films where this device has been used, such as Touch of Pink (2004) and Paper Man (2010), it wasn’t obvious where the device was going or where it would take the main character. Here, it’s not a surprise and not underlining anything complex or nuanced.
There is a pretty incredible sequence where Jojo is in the middle of a battlefield. We even see other children in the middle of the battlefield. However, at no point do we see any children dead on that battlefield. If we are to believe that children were out there fighting for the Nazis, then some of them would have been killed. Yet, Waititi doesn’t go there. That’s not bold. There’s actually a kind of cowardice in that.
Finally, there is a death that happens toward the end of this film that the film pauses to mourn and to underscore. That death is of a white German. It’s not to say that the film shouldn’t have underscored that death, but it does so without pausing to underscore the deaths of the six million Jewish people who died as a result of the Holocaust and that war. That is very disappointing.
Rated PG-13 for mature content, some disturbing images, violence and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 48 mins.
In select cities, including Salisbury on Nov. 8, as well as Annapolis and Newark.