In Jojo Rabbit, the new film from writer/director Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), a 10-year-old German boy named Jojo who aspires to become a member of the Hitler Youth brigade in his small town discovers that his own mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a teenage Jew named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls of their home.
As World War II begins to go south for the Nazi regime, Jojo must contend with his unexpected feelings for Elsa, the monstrous ideology he thought he wanted to embrace, and the increasingly sinister demeanor of his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Waititi).
Jojo Rabbit uses both absurdist comedy and a bittersweet emotional undertow to emphasize its themes of love and acceptance, but the film has gotten a bit of pushback from some critics who feel like the Nazis are never a joking matter.
“I grew up watching movies that used humor to satirize big ideas and big subjects, including Hitler, right back to The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, and Mel Brooks in the 60s,” says one of the film’s cast members, Stephen Merchant (co-creator of the original UK version of The Office and Caliban in 2017’s Logan) in our video interview below.
Merchant adds, “Certainly in British comedy, there were always jokes about people mocking Hitler, in part because it was very real and recent. It happened in the recent past and people made jokes at the time, because that’s how you undermine fascists and dictators — you mock and satirize their preposterous beliefs and it robs them of the fear they’re trying to spread because you’re laughing at them.”
Merchant admits he doesn’t quite understand why Nazis shouldn’t be a comedic target: “To now be in 2019 with the idea that you can’t make fun of these things seems strange to me, because there’s a long tradition of doing it,” he says. “When this script lands in your inbox, and it’s trying to do something that audacious and fit into that lineage, and satirize this, but also move you and take you to an emotional place, I’m just pleased that films like this are still being made.”
Ironically, Merchant portrays one of the darkest characters in Jojo Rabbit, the Gestapo agent Captain Deertz. Yet he and the script manage to find the inherent ridiculousness even in someone that irredeemable, making him both foolish and malevolent at the same time.
“The thing that’s always struck me about those Gestapo people is that some of them were sort of bureaucrats,” he elaborates. “They were little men in the metaphorical sense who were suddenly given this power of life and death over people. It’s the worst kind of person, because they had nothing in life and suddenly they have everything. So to be absurd and chilling at the same time, that was sort of the way into it for me.”
Jojo Rabbit is playing in limited release now and will expand nationwide.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye