There’s a long tradition, going back to Charlie Chaplin and “To Be or Not to Be,” of Hitler-Nazi satire, though the dam really broke in the late sixties with Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” and “Hogan’s Heroes” on TV. While Taika Waititi’s contribution to the genre doesn’t break entirely new ground, therefore, it is notable for conjoining it with a seriocomic coming-of-age element and a very serious Anne Frank-style plot thread—as well as employing humor with a contemporary, almost frat-boy edge. The result is an admittedly bizarre picture that, while like its predecessors will offend some, makes up in sheer energy and inventiveness what it lacks in tonal consistency.
The real protagonist of the film is Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten-year old imbued with dedication to everything Nazi in the waning days of World War II. His best pal is Yorki (Archie Yates), a chubby, bespectacled kid whose devotion to the National Socialist ideal is no less complete but much less intense. Johannes (or Jojo) is such a fervent believer that he has conjured up an imaginary friend—Adolf Hitler himself (Waititi), who eggs him on like some goofy cheerleader.
Unfortunately, Jojo’s inability to live up to the Nazi ideal of coldhearted virility is revealed at a Hitler Youth Camp session presided over by laid-back Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) with the assistance of his second-in-command Finkel (Alfie Allen) and their wacky female aide Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). Humiliated when he’s unable to strangle a rabbit, Jojo tries to redeem himself by hurling a grenade, only to be injured in the explosion. After his recovery, the badly-scarred, limping boy winds up as an intern in Klenzendorf’s office.
Jojo’s other close relationship is with his freewheeling single mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who is harboring a secret from him: an anti-Nazi, she has hidden a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in an upstairs crawlspace of their home, and the boy naturally discovers her. He’s at once horrified and fascinated, torn between his pal Adolf’s admonitions and his gradual warming to the interloper.
He responds by trying to use Elsa as a source of spurious information about Jews for a childish exposé of their inhuman qualities he intends to compile, but as he does so, of course, her human reality overtakes his wild ideological imaginings. His attitude takes a complete turn after a house inspection by a ghoulishly grinning Gestapo officer (Stephen Merchant), a tragic twist involving Rosie, the collapse of the war effort and news from Berlin about the real Hitler.
“Jojo Rabbit” is a deliberately quirky hybrid—a blending of a youngster’s “coming to terms with horror” story—a sort-of cousin to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”—with blissfully wacked-out ridicule of Nazis that makes “Hogan’s Heroes” look mild by comparison, including a Hitler who’s an exuberantly nutty “Animal House” caricature (until, at the very end, he morphs into something pretty terrifying). Whether you will find the juxtapositions of tone jarring or grimly funny, weirdly hilarious or grotesquely tasteless, is the question; widely divided reactions to the film are inevitable. And the throwaway bits of dialogue, from Hitler’s anachronistically absurd exhortations to Jojo’s uncomprehending reactions and the nonsensical observations of Klenzendorf and Rahm, will similarly irritate or amuse.
What’s unquestionable is the astonishing performance of Davis as the tyke who finds his most cherished beliefs challenged. He actually manages to make Jojo’s addiction to an odious ideology seem an engaging, foolishly youthful attitude rather than appalling, and the addition of Yates’s more practical, aw-shucks Yorki to the equation further mitigates the discomfort you might feel. Of course the effect that Elsa—played with a combination of spunkiness and poignancy by McKenzie—has on Jojo also sweetens the character.
The adults around the youngsters are largely caricatures—even Rosie, played by Johansson with a degree of animation that’s rare for her, is basically a one-note figure. But Rockwell clearly has fun with the obtuse Klenzendorf, who ultimately shows more depth than first appears the case, as does Wilson, as undisciplined as ever as Rahm (though she shows no signs of depth at all). Merchant is genuinely spooky as the cadaverous Gestapo man, whose entrance leads to an explosion of “Heils” that rivals the credits sequence, composed of found footage set to the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
That quasi-sophomoric type of humor is characteristic of “Jojo Rabbit,” which revels in dumb jokes like a groaner about shepherds. Waititi’s Hitler falls into that same category, being derived more from outlandish sketch comedy than anything else. But if you’re in the right mood, it can be very funny—certainly more so than Dick Shawn’s Fuhrer.
The film is much less daring and provocative than it seems to be, of course; for all its outrageousness, it’s actually a fairly familiar story—an inherently serious one—festooned with goofy comic overtones. But it’s played with zest by all, and is nicely appointed, with the production design (Ra Vincent), costumes (Mayes C. Rubeo) excellent and the cinematography (Mihai Malaimare Jr.) and editing (Tom Eagles) equally expert.
In short, a pretty good addition to films that take a satirical swipe at Hitler and his mad philosophy.