Hitler as your imaginary friend: New satire takes a different look at Nazi Germany

Child actor Roman Griffin Davis is already up for awards for his role in Nazi-era satire JoJo Rabbit, writes Esther McCarthy

Writer/director/star Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in JoJo Rabbit, a satire about a member of a Nazi youth organisation, opening in irish cinemas on Friday.
Writer/director/star Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in JoJo Rabbit, a satire about a member of a Nazi youth organisation, opening in irish cinemas on Friday.

He's the 12-year-old boy who bagged a Golden Globe nomination for his lead role in an audacious satire. But Roman Griffin Davis’s performance is all the more remarkable when you realise it’s his first professional acting job.

The Londoner is the star of Jojo Rabbit, described by writer/director Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) as “an anti-hate satire”. Set in the latter days of WW2, the youngster plays Jojo, a young German Jungfolk member — a pre-teen version of Hitler Youth — whose imaginary friend is the Fuhrer himself. He is aghast to discover that his mother (Scarlett Johansson), has been secretly hiding a young Jewish girl in the family home.

It’s a film that dares to look at WW2 and the Holocaust through the eyes of a child, and brings whimsy to the subject matter in a manner that has alienated some critics. But Waititi’s movie builds to something powerful and potent and is very likely to be in the awards-season conversation.

Griffin Davis learned of his Golden Globe nomination following a long-haul flight.

“I was really jet-lagged, because we had just arrived from America and me and my mum were sitting around the table trying to find a live video. I heard them call out: ‘Leonardo Di Caprio, Daniel Craig, Taron Egerton, Eddie Murphy’ and then we just heard an R and I started shouting up and down the corridor!

Even my dog was excited. I’m still kind of processing it.

He’s excited at the prospect of meeting many famous faces on awards night. “I’ve got a plan that I could dress up as a waiter and I could go round all the tables bugging all the film stars — that would be quite funny.”

Not that he’ll need to. He’s been getting strong reviews for what is his first big-screen performance, which came about through persistencefollowing many auditions he didn’t get as he pursued his acting dream. He learned he’d got the part via a phone call on the way to school.

FILM SET

Roman’s parents are both in the film industry. His father, Ben Davis, is a cinematographer whose credits include Captain Marvel, while mum Camille Griffin is also a filmmaker, so he was undaunted by a film set.

“My dad was always on a set, and I remember going around the sets and I could feel this vibe that was settling. I didn’t feel like my dad was working, I was like: ‘You lucky beggar’. I remember watching all the classic films, looking at them and thinking how it must be such a privilege to be able to act.”

Though always interested in the history of WW2, he researched more, including the establishment of Hitler Youth and the Jungvolk, and was astonished to learn how children of his own age were indoctrinated and manipulated.

“I’ve always known the facts and the basis of the Holocaust. My mum’s always taught it to me and my brothers because it’s such an important moment in history that should never be forgotten.

My mum was even doing this film occupation at school where she was sharing the film Life is Beautiful, by Roberto Benigni.

“I always knew about the Holocaust but I never knew about Hitler Youth. It was really fascinating to see how this man brainwashed a population of children to be fascists. I was watching this documentary about it — these kids literally jumped in front of tanks. It was shocking to see. I learned how fragile kids’ minds are, and how they really need to be nurtured.

“They’re the next generation. And I think that education and their youth is the most important period of their life. It carries on, and Iremember these kids that went through it, they’re still traumatised [as adults in the documentary].

“There’s one kid who was crying because he told on his mother and she died the next day. The head Hitler Youth officer came up and said, why are you crying? And he said: ‘My mother just died’. He slapped him across the face and told him to never cry again. That’s just disgusting to see how these people can really manipulate people.”

UP FOR DISCUSSION

It’s a discussion he and his school friends have had ever since producers organised for them to attend a screening at their local cinema.

“Some friends who didn’t know much about the Holocaust and Second World War in general, came out knowing the whole thing. I remember asking one friend what he thought the film was about and he said: ‘I think it’s about seeing things through your own eyes and not through other people’s’. I remember hearing that and thinking the film’s purpose has kind of been completed.”

SATIRISING THE NAZIS

There is a long history of Nazi satire in film and popular culture, as storytellers seek to expose wrongdoing through the use of irony and exaggeration.

Charlie Chaplin famously spoofed Hitler in 1940’s The Great Dictator, before the world knew the horrific extent of his power that would unfold. It was the same year the Three Stooges sent up Nazism in their short film, You Nazty Spy!.

Even Donald Duck got in on the act in Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943), which was a satire but also a propaganda film aimed at garnering support for the war effort. Since then, the far-right has been parodied in everything from The Producers to Monty Python.

Waititi has described Jojo Rabbit as an anti-hate satire but it also serves as a reminder of how young people were groomed into the Nazi regime.

Jojo joins a pre-teen version of Hitler Youth because he believes it’s glamorous but also because he wants to feel a sense of belonging — but is ridiculed by older children for refusing to kill a rabbit early in the film.

Scenes in the film show children taking part in scout-style camps where they learn to fire weapons and while they are satirised, historically they were very real.

Scouting was banned in Germany under the Nazi regime, leaving children with no choice but to join the groups if they wanted scouting experience.

Membership of such youth groups was voluntary in Germany until the mid-1930s, when all boys and girls in Nazi Germany were required to join.

While the adults who taught them knew they were developing a future generation of Nazis, younger children saw them in more innocent terms. However, once the war began, they became more actively involved in the Nazi regime. As Hitler himself famously believed: “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future”

JoJo Rabbit opens in Irish cinemas on Friday. The Golden Globes take place on Sunday

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