There’s a tradition of making fun of Hitler and the Nazis that dates to World War II — Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” opened in London in December 1940 at the height of the Blitz.
Since then, Mel Brooks, Monty Python, “Seinfeld” — they’ve all (among so many others) parodied, satirized and caricatured the apotheosis of evil in ways that have made some laugh and some cringe.
Only a few, though, have been sufficiently audacious to attempt towing the line between farce and straight-ahead pathos. Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning “Life Is Beautiful,” is probably the most notable in this category, and it’s now joined by the latest from Taika Waititi, a half-Maori, half-Jewish filmmaker from New Zealand known for whimsically subversive comedies.
“Jojo Rabbit” is written and directed by Waititi, who also plays an impressionable German boy’s imaginary manifestation of Adolf Hitler.
The boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a runtish 10-year-old in a small German town toward the end of the war, loves the Nazis in the way a boy of the same age might become fanatical about the Philadelphia Eagles — it’s a club to be a part of; it’s something his schoolmates are into. The uniforms, the fantastical mythology, the call-and-response “Heil Hitler-ing” and of course the club’s logo — Jojo is “massively into swastikas.”
Still, Jojo doesn’t fit in. At the Hitler Youth weekend retreat he was so excited to attend, Jojo is teased for lacking the nerve to kill a rabbit and cries as the group taunts him by his shameful new nickname, “Jojo Rabbit.”
Jojo’s only nonimaginary friend, aside from his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) who’s decidedly less in thrall to the Nazis’ propaganda, is a portly boy with round horn-rims named Yorkie (Archie Yates), whose British accent is nonsensical in the abstract but, in context, is somehow just right. Yorkie, like a deadeye three-point shooter off the bench, is used sparingly but steals every scene he is in.
In one memorable scene, Jojo levels with Yorkie—unless he’s really Hitler trapped in a chubby 10-year-old’s body, Yorkie will have to settle for being Jojo’s second-best friend.
But as the film progresses, it’s clear Jojo’s heart is too pure and kind to follow Hitler’s edicts, be they real or imaginary.
When he finds that his mother has been hiding a 17-year-old Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in a hidden compartment adjoining his dead sister’s room, Jojo’s faced with a reckoning. His Nazi indoctrination has told him a lot about Jews, but Elsa displays none of the telltale signs — no horns, no scales, no shape-shifting. Though to be fair, if she’s as duplicitous and cunning as they say Jews can be, how would he know? He better keep looking.
Elsa, meanwhile, makes her otherwise solitary time pass by having a bit of sport with the young and credulous Jojo. Did he know, for example, that Jews sleep hanging upside down, like bats, or that Jews can read other Jews’ minds?
The film’s absurdist humor comes to dominate fewer scenes as the Nazis’ destruction nears and as Jojo grows more attached to Elsa. She is a beautiful “older” woman; he’s 10. Naturally, she becomes his first love. And she loves him, though in that older sisterly way.
As Jojo grows closer to Elsa, Waititi’s Hitler is much less frequently present until Jojo decides for good that he’s outlived his usefulness and assertively casts Hitler out of his consciousness in a way that’s memorable but, on look back, flirts too close to a shameless play for applause.
This movie has its moments. There are more moments of genuine laughter than emotionally moving ones, though there are a few of the latter. What becomes of Johansson’s character need not be revealed, but it’s been speculated that the movie is, at least in part, a tribute to single mothers.
Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf is a disillusioned, perhaps not-so-closeted gay Nazi officer charged with leading the Hitler Youth indoctrination, which he does with a hilarious mix of sarcasm and fatalism. Like Yorkie, Rockwell steals nearly every scene that he’s in.
Aesthetically, there are instances where “Jojo Rabbit” is so reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” that one wonders whether Waititi ever thought the look and feel to be too similar.
Comedically, “Jojo Rabbit” has a couple laugh out loud moments, though some jokes are simply too on-the-nose. It’s not a question of whether they’re offensive; they’re just not smart enough.
For Nazi-themed humor for humor’s sake, “Inglorious Basterds” is better comedy; for a mix of humor and sentimentality, “Life is Beautiful” remains more complete.
The device of Hitler as Jojo’s imaginary friend, while initially amusing, is ultimately tiresome. The handful of the film’s funniest moments do not include Waititi’s Hitler, and his recurring presence almost starts to feel like an obligation, which perhaps it really was — “Caging Skies,” a novel by Christine Leunens is the film’s source material.
Waititi is to be applauded for his ambition. “Jojo Rabbit” is a worthy, though far from perfect, addition to the comedic tradition of exposing fascism’s absurdity.
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