The Nazis have been the subject of screen satire going all the way back to their peak of power and aggression, as seen in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) ripping Hitler and his minions a new one in real time, even as the world was discovering the full extent of the horrors they inflicted were known. Both films are considered masterpieces now, but the latter in particular received its share of critical knocks at the time for contrasting the humorous escapades of its acting troupe with the cataclysmic downfall of Warsaw.
It’s a tough line to walk, but director/writer Taika Waititi (Thor: Love and Thunder) gives it a go with Jojo Rabbit, his bittersweet comedy that had its West Coast premiere at this year’s Beyond Fest. Based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, the film stars newcomer Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo Betzler, a lonely 10-year-old German boy naively dedicated to the Nazi regime whose imaginary friend is Hitler himself (played by Waititi). But when Jojo discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie from Leave No Trace) in their house, his growing affection for the girl soon has him questioning his loyalties and ideology.
The part about the imaginary Hitler aside, the plot of Jojo Rabbit could easily read as a drama–and the truth is that the more dramatic and tragic aspects of the story lie somewhat uneasily alongside the absurdist comedy that is Waititi’s strong suit. His earlier Hunt for the Wilderpeople was a seamless blend of character-driven comedy and drama, while the 2014 faux-doc What We Do in the Shadows was sheer farce based on well-worn and beloved horror tropes. Even though Jojo Rabbit has a steady stream of laugh-out-loud moments, you’re always aware of the backdrop against which they play, and they frequently work against the darker aspects of the film’s narrative.
Davis, McKenzie, and Johansson are nearly flawless in their roles. Davis is endearingly guileless from the start; his mocking “Rabbit” nickname is bestowed upon him after he is unable to kill an innocent bunny in cold blood during a Hitler Youth training exercise, hinting at his lack of real qualifications for membership in a regime of monsters. McKenzie is strong-willed and capable, making up stories that gently lead Jojo away from the path of anti-Semitism even as her own hope flags, while Johansson’s maternal warmth also provides cover for a steely courage and depth.
The biggest laughs, ironically enough, come from Waititi’s Hitler, a whiny, needy, childish narcissist and paranoiac who turns to bluster and rage at a moment’s notice (and who could easily serve as commentary on a certain man-baby these days). Anachronistic in his language and demeanor, the Hitler of Jojo’s mind is his best friend until Jojo begins to see Elsa as a human being and not a monster. Waititi’s Fuhrer is still more Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel than, say, Bruno Ganz’s brooding, self-pitying Hitler from Downfall, but even played as a fool he’s a subtly malicious piece of work.
The irrational and ludicrous hatred at the center of the Nazis’ ideology gets a good kicking throughout the film, with Waititi mining comedic gold from Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, and Alfie Allen as local members of the Party who devise ever more desperate ways to either indoctrinate or intimidate Jojo and other village youngsters as it becomes clear that the war is going south for the Reich. It should come as no surprise that the best work of this bunch comes from Sam Rockwell as Capt. Klenzendorf, who runs the local Hitler Youth camp but gradually reveals himself to be haunted by his own secrets.
Even with its robust cast, and Waititi’s way with both verbal humor and sight gags, the movie as a whole seems oddly evanescent. Its message, of course, is both relevant and simple, yet when weighed against the horrors of its historical setting does not quite match the latter in gravitas and potency. Jojo Rabbit is both enjoyable to watch and yet weirdly unmoving, although its pleasurable attributes outweigh the latter enough to make the film largely successful with the risks it takes. He may not be Chaplin or Lubitsch (yet), but Waititi does no dishonor to the trail they blazed.
Jojo Rabbit is out in theaters Oct. 18.