For about as long as there has been Nazis there have been people making fun of Nazis. Carlie Chaplin made and released The Great Dictator before the United States even entered the war, Ernst Lubitsch made To Be or Not to Be at the war’s height, and even Disney was known to put out cartoons of Donald Duck wreaking havoc behind German lines. Granted, those movies were made before the details of the Holocaust were public and some of those jokes about “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” and the like do take on a new meaning in hindsight, but these movies remain prime examples of the power of laughing in the face of evil. The game of making fun of the Nazis didn’t exactly end there though and through the rest of the 20th Century you can find any number of movies like The Producers or the show “Hogan’s Heroes” that would use the goose stepping and thoughtless hate of Nazi totalitarianism as a source of dark humor and a similar streak of satire tends to run through a lot of other movies that take a more irreverent look at the past like the Nazis in the Indiana Jones franchise or in Inglourious Basterds or even in the Wolfenstein series of video games. So it wasn’t really a huge shock to me when I learned that the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (who is apparently Jewish) was making a satire about life in Germany during the end of the Second World War which would feature some rather irreverent Hitler imagery, but I was curious to see what he’d do with the concept.
The film concerns a ten year old boy named Johann “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), who is living in a town somewhere in western Germany during the last year of the Second World War. Jojo’s father is said to be away fighting in the war and his sister apparently died earlier so he is living alone with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Jojo has been caught up in the madness of Nazi Germany and views Hitler as something of a rock star and Hitler (Taika Waititi) actually talks to him from time to time as a sort of hallucinatory imaginary friend and as the film begins he’s excitedly running off to a Hitler Youth jamboree. This gathering is being overseen by a wounded German officer named Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who at one point demands that Jojo kill a rabbit in front of him to demonstrate his willingness to kill for the Fatherland and despite Jojo’s enthusiasm for the cause can’t bring himself to do this, at which point he is mocked and given the nickname “Jojo Rabbit.” Compounding his problems he ends up having an unlikely grenade accident, which he survives but is left with some scarring on his face and leg. Because of that he’s stuck home most days and starts to hear noises from the second floor and discovers a hidden door and when he looks behind it he learns that his mother has been hiding a seventeen year old Jew named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in her attic, a discovery that will make him question his commitment the Nazi ethos.
Jojo Rabbit won the Audience Prize at the Toronto Film Festival this year and I suspect that it will be a pretty big hit with audiences generally; the one I saw it with certainly seemed to like it and gave it a big applause at the end. I will say, I can sort of see why certain audiences would react that way. Taika Waititi is a skilled director and does have a certain knack for juxtaposing slightly difficult coming of age stories with wacky humor as evidenced by his previous film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I can also see why people would find the film to be pretty funny as there are certainly moments in it that are recognizably witty and Waititi’s performance in it as hallucination Hitler is certainly broadly memorable entry in the ranks of Hitler parodies (of which there are many) and the performances in general are pretty strong. The audience I saw it with was laughing uproariously through much of the movie but while I could recognize some decent comic beats this movie did not really make me laugh all that much, which could mostly be a matter of taste or could be a function of me just not finding all of this as shocking or outlandish as some people may. As I discussed in the opening paragraph there’s kind of a long history of movies making fun of the Nazis and on some level I’m kind of over it, or at least harder to impress with it.
That having been said, I am glad that Waititi did add that level of overt comedy to the film because without that this movie would really be a pretty insufferable. I mentioned earlier that this was the winner of the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, and that is an award that has something of a history of not aligning with my tastes as the last film to win it was last year’s inexplicable Oscar winning film Green Book. I bring that up because this movie and Green Book have more in common than you might think from the advertising campaigns. At its core this, like Green Book, is basically the story of a white (or in this case gentile) person slowly coming to decide the minority he’s forced to have dealings with isn’t so bad after all and how the power of friendship triumphs over hate or some shit. This isn’t to say the two movies are identical. For one thing this is about a child coming to this realization and not a grown-ass man and it’s a child who grew up in a somewhat extreme environment to boot. But still, I must say I find something kind of trite about this whole message of intolerance being overcome through personal interactions and especially find it to be rather out of place here given that Nazi Germany certainly wasn’t a place that improved their race relations through gradual self-improvement and civility. On the contrary, it took an overwhelming military defeat at the cost of millions of lives, a series of trials that ended in many of its leaders being executed, and a five year occupation in which all former Nazi organizations and symbols were illegalized, and decades of shame and a conspicuous demand for atonement from the rest of the world thereafter.
If Waititi really wanted to explore Nazism he probably would have been better served exploring what made Jojo (and by extension the rest of Germany) find that party appealing in the first place rather than how he came to dislike it all of a week before the allies were about to force the issue anyway. The opening credits, set to a German cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” compares the rise of Hitler to Beatlemania, which is the kind of provocation and insight I would have liked from the rest of the film but it doesn’t fully explain why this kid (who would have only just been born around the time Triumph of the Will came out) would be such a fan. He clearly didn’t get this from his parents, who clearly weren’t true believers in Aryan Ideology and presumably would have tried to instill in him some of those values even if they needed to be careful about preventing him from spilling the beans. The imaginary Hitler friend also doesn’t provide much insight. The character is presumably supposed to be a sort of devil on this kid’s shoulder and from time to time he sort of acts in this capacity but more often than not he’s just there to be a goofy onscreen presence rather than some hateful part of his psyche. In many ways making the film about a child just seems like a bit of a copout, it doesn’t explain why a struggling country would have found comfort in authoritarianism and it makes anti-Semitism into an exaggerated joke about childish misconceptions of people with horns rather than the result of a paranoid conspiracy theory mixed with a strong desire to feel superior to others.
Despite the Audience Award win at Toronto the film’s response at that festival by critics was kind of polarized. This didn’t get a whole lot of press, in part because the critics were even more polarized by Joker and the endless arguments about that movie have kind of overshadowed any other cinematic divisions. But Joker is perhaps another interesting point of comparison because I think my view of Jojo Rabbit is not dissimilar from how a lot of that film’s detractors felt: namely that I think it has a premise that promises a strong insight into society that it never really delivers on and ends up feeling especially shallow as a result. That might not be entirely fair: much as I basically view Joker as elevated genre fare rather than a work attempting true social insight, there will probably be a lot of people who view this as simply a smarter than average comedy which provides a better than average theatrical experience and that’s probably fair enough. Additionally I could see myself having gone along with this a lot more if it had hit my funny bone more than it did, instead I found some of its quirks kind of annoying especially given the setting and how little insight I think it really has into it.
**1/2 out of Five