Hitler was the funny one? Who knew?
Directed by Taika Waititi
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi
Comedies set in and around World War II Germany are thin on the ground. People are, understandably, still a bit touchy about Nazis and the Holocaust, and the vast majority of filmmakers have chosen not to look for humor in one of our planet’s darkest moments. Still, a few brave artists have attempted to bring laughs to a setting normally reserved for serious war drama. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be (1942)—later remade with Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft in the lead roles (1983)—Jerry Lewis’ infamous, abandoned-
Based on New Zealand-Belgian author Christine Leunens’ 2008 novel Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit follows the coming-of-age adventures of 10-year-old Johannes Beltzer (cherubic discovery Roman Griffin Davis). At the tail end of World War II, scrawny and undersized Jojo is sent off to Hitler Youth camp by his loving mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). There, the boys learn important skills like “blowing stuff up,” while the girls are taught the value of “having babies for Germany.” Under the not-so-attentive tutelage of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson), our enthusiastic protagonist is regularly bullied, earns his titular nickname and manages to blow himself up with a hand grenade. Sent back home with a pronounced limp and a cluster of facial scars, Jojo is one sad little Nazi.
Fortunately, the kid has got himself a very special imaginary friend who’s always there to pick up his spirits. Whenever he’s down, Jojo imagines that Adolf Hitler himself (played by writer-director Waititi) is there offering advice and encouragement. This is Jojo Rabbit’s most whimsical and controversial gimmick. But it’s clearly not meant to represent a real, comedic version of Hitler. This is a child’s imaginary vision of the infamous leader, and Waititi plays the role with full, campy mockery. (Like most of the other filmmmakers who have attempted to walk this tightrope, Waititi is Jewish.)
Jojo’s dad disappeared on the front in Italy two years ago, leaving him to be raised by his increasingly concerned mother (who does not share his enthusiasm for all things Hitler). It’s not all that surprising that Jojo (and countless other young Germans, for that matter) would look at Der Führer as a father figure. (It was, after all, kind of his schtick.) Although Jojo seems like the ideal, brainwashed Hitler disciple, he’s really a sweet, innocent, soft-hearted kid caught up in the seductive propaganda of the era. As one character pegs him, “You’re not a Nazi; you just want to wear a uniform and be part of a club.”
Thanks to the injuries suffered on his summer camp jaunt, Jojo is soon stuck distributing fliers for the local Nazi Party (under the supervision of the sympathetic Captain Klenzendorf, who was demoted after Jojo’s little accident). This keeps Jojo close to his doting mother and to home. It’s there that he discovers a dangerous secret: Mom is hiding a teenage Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie from Debra Granik’s stunning Leave No Trace) in the attic. Jojo accidentally stumbles across her hiding place and is mostly terrified by her presence. Jojo’s only knowledge of Jews comes from the various propaganda pamphlets he’s read. He assumes them to be dangerous demonic entities. Elsa uses this to her advantage, threatening Jojo with her supernatural powers if he reveals her hiding place.
Naturally, Jojo’s invisible pal Hitler despises the idea of a Jewish girl in the house and does his best to convince Jojo to get rid of her. But as the curious Jojo continues to engage the feisty Elsa in conversations (under the guise of writing a “guidebook” to identifying Jews), he gets to know her as a human being. Hitler’s influence (and his presence in the film) begins to fade.
As you might expect given just about any description of this film, Jojo Rabbit shifts wildly in tone over its runtime. For some films, that’s a problem. Here, it’s kind of the point. Waititi isn’t particularly concerned with petty anachronisms (David Bowie and The Beatles, singing in German, make up the bulk of the soundtrack). Nor is he interested in simply trading historical accuracy for wacky humor. This is certainly closer in look and feel to Wes Anderson’s childhood-tinted films Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom than to Mel Brook’s broad, vaudevillian work on Springtime For Hitler in The Producers. Most of the credit goes to Waititi, who has transitioned from cult filmmaker (What We Do in the Shadows) to Hollywood breadwinner (Thor: Ragnarok) while still maintaining his scrappy Kiwi charm.
Jojo Rabbit stands in the middle of a teeter-totter: Silly, heavily satirical and occasionally a bit surreal on the one side—dark, slyly critical and packing a hidden emotional punch underneath it all on the other. It’s a tough trick to pull off, and most wouldn’t even attempt it. Jojo Rabbit isn’t perfect. The film steers well clear of the Third Reich’s worst atrocities (like you couldn’t absorb those in a hundred other movies), and it could easily be accused of sugar-coating a particularly grim subject for the sake of some feel-good escapism. And yet, Waititi’s gentle, big-hearted, humor-loving nature shines through from start to finish. If you can absorb the provocative joke at the center of it (Adolf Hitler as comic relief), Jojo Rabbit is a whole lot of wonderful in a very small package.