Jojo Rabbit: A Black Comedy that Lampoons the Third Reich

Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Directed by Taika Waititi
Fox Searchlight, 108 minutes, PG-13 (mild language)

It’s been 76 years since the end of World War Two but in some circles, Adolf Hitler remains the third rail of comedy. Numerous reviewers have frothed themselves into a moral lather over Jojo Rabbit and have accused New Zealand director Taika Waititi of glorifying Nazism. That’s absolute rubbish. Waititi’s father is Maori and his mother, Robin Cohen, is of English/Russian/Jewish descent. Waititi embraces both parts of his heritage and his film is a black comedy/drama that explores both the absurdities of anti-Semitism and how easily the flames of fanaticism can be flamed.

It is hard to find humor in the horrors of Nazi Germany, but Waititi is up to something more subversive than kneejerk revulsion: he delegitimizes fascists by painting them as destructive clowns. He is hardly the first to do so. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) made Hitler into a buffoon, as did Mel Brooks in The Producers (1967). Others had their crack at throwing a cream pie in the Fuhrer’s face: Donald Duck, The Three Stooges, TV’s Hogan’s Heroes, Marvel Comics, and movies such as The Boys from Brazil (1978), Life is Beautiful (1997), and Inglorious Basterds (2009).

Jojo Rabbit centers on 10-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis). It is late 1944 and Jojo is enrolled in a Hitler Youth (HY) group. He dresses the part and tries to be a good little Nazi; he even has an imaginary friend: Hitler (Waititi), who appears from time to time to give Jojo advice, though he is an absurd fool who gets caught in his own contradictions. Jojo goes off to a HY camp and mouths all the right slogans, but he and his real friend, the pudgy Yorki (Archie Yates), are inept at being fascist badasses. When one-eyed Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his second-in-command Finkel (Alfie Allen) try to whip the boys into a sanguinary froth, Jojo cannot bring himself to slaughter a bunny and thus acquires his unflattering handle, “Jojo Rabbit.” The HY camp foibles immediately put me in mind of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom done up in Nazi drag. Waititi is often compared to Anderson, though earlier Waititi offerings such Eagle vs Shark, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Boy are quirkier.

The first quarter of Jojo Rabbit might distress overly sensitive viewers. Despite his clumsiness, Jojo continues to spout fascist ideals, including making hateful remarks about Jews. Stay with it. Jojo’s mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), a lighthearted optimist, tempers Jojo by paying scant attention to the war and deflects politics and queries about Jojo’s absent father. Much to Jojo’s shock, she is also secretly harboring a Jewish teenager, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). As is often the case, hatred is easier in the abstract than in the flesh. Jojo must face two major dilemmas. If the Gestapo finds out, his mother will be arrested. Plus, Jojo is strangely drawn to Elsa, even though he’s scared of her. Some of the film’s darkest humor comes when Elsa deliberately sabotages Jojo’s efforts to find out what Jews are “really” like so he can compile his discoveries into an illustrated book.

Jojo Rabbit takes touching and poignant turns, though there’s no sentimentality wasted on the Nazis. Klendendorf is a sloppy drunk, Finkle a bumbling tag along, and Gestapo agents like something from a Monty Python sketch. Jojo Rabbit also evokes Armando Iannucci’s comedy The Death of Stalin (2017). Isn’t it odd how few critics said it was wrong to satirize Stalin, who was also a mass murderer? In my view, Waititi gets right what Anderson and Iannucci failed to achieve. Anderson is often so droll that he valorizes detached hipsterism, and Iannucci stumbled when trying to redo Soviet politics as a comedic 1984. By contrast, Waititi imbues Jojo, Elsa, Rosie, Yorki, and a few surprise others with humanity.

The film is also crisply acted from top to bottom. Roman Griffin Davis is quite a find. At times his intensity is such that we can see how propaganda can warp even a child, yet Davis turns on a dime to make us understand that a child parroting bad things is still just a child–one who can cry over a bunny, live in a fantasy world, and learn how to differentiate good from evil. McKenzie–last seen in Leave No Trace, my favorite film of 2018–also shows great range; she is, at turns, furtive, fierce, frightened, and tender. Both Rockwell and Johansson chow down on their roles–in good ways–by turning on and off the humor/drama spigots as needed. Yates is like a bespectacled Teddy bear; Allen–Theon in Game of Thrones–and Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm have bit roles that they make seem much bigger.

Despite the film’s outward content, it is indeed a comedy, but of the variety in which we laugh at horrible things lest we sink into despair. Waititi ultimately flashes his middle digits at fascists past and present by exposing them for what they are: fanatics and fools who ultimately fall. Even a 10-year-old can understand that! For what it’s worth, there is little that drives the grandson of German immigrant and Mussolini act-alike Donald Trump(f) to cold fury as those who refuse to take him seriously.

Rob Weir


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