We must acknowledge the elephant or rather, the rabbit in the room. Grappling with the intersection of Nazis and humor has always been a loaded and controversial topic. But usually, it fosters conversation nonetheless so here’s an attempt to provide some meager context.
The Great Dictator (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942) are two of the most prescient films to come out of their era, years before we would get the campy buffoonery of Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71) or Mel Brooks’ irreverent breakout The Producers (1968). Even something more squarely dramatic like Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997) is still buoyed by laughs. Understandably, with each of these examples, there have been detractors who have called into question the ways in which they tackle the historical moment given the subject matter.
I am not here to tell anyone they are wrong. There’s also the reality that the issues being wrestled with are still very real, and even after 75 years, in many cases still very raw. All of this must be taken into account.
For instance, I recall the first time I learned about Alfons Heck, trained up from the age of 6 to be a loyal cog in the Nazi propaganda machine. Only years later, did he come to terms with all the lies he and his generation of German youth were being peddled. He subsequently toured the university circuit in the states with Holocaust survivor Helen Waterford denouncing the ills of ideological brainwashing, lest we forget it ever existed.
Or I was reminded of Hans Detlef Sierck (better known as renowned film director Douglas Sirk), who after marrying a Jewish woman, was blocked by his first wife, an ardent Nazi supporter, from seeing their son Klaus. The boy would become a child star in Nazi cinema, although he eventually died in combat in 1944. Sirk never saw him again.
These are stunning reminders of how virulent ideologies can tear lives apart and this is much of what Jojo Rabbit occupies itself with. But the difference is taking the negativity and making it positive. This is a tale about empathy, understanding, anti-hate if you will. If you accept the term leniently, it is a satire, but I tend to see that word coming with a bite or an irony (not unakin to Sirk or Billy Wilder).
However, this story is mostly full of warmth, good-humor, and because this is a Taika Waititi production, wackiness. Mind you, that’s generally a compliment. The opening refrains of “Komm, gib mir deine Hand,” known in the English-speaking free world known as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” equates the nationalistic fervor to Beatlemania, recontextualizing the history but also giving it a raucous vibe.
Consequently, some people will find Jojo Rabbit at best inane and inconsequential and at worst, offensive — as is the case when anything as sensitive as the Nazis is brought to the fore. In an age of political correctness, it’s a film trampling a danger zone where racial epithets and maledictions leave the tongues of oafish buffoons. One decidedly ironic line curses a “female, Jewish Jesse Owens.”
This is where the movie and Taika Waititi — as an emblematic supporting character — are able to succeed. It sings with a warm benevolence that proves unerringly sweet. Empathizing with those with whom we would do well to connect with and undermining the villains’ remnant of cultural clout.
It starts with our hero Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) a kind-hearted young boy. His is a bildungsroman story like we’ve seen time and time again (even from Waititi). Because he is a creature of innocence, despite what the culture leads him to believe about himself. Because the difference is he, like Heck or Sierck, is coming to age in the fanatical regime of the Nazis where he is being trained up to be a good little soldier.
He’s adorably inept and faint of heart like any young lad dealing with the peer pressure around him. As a 10-year-old he still can’t tie his shoelaces nor can he muster up the needed brutality to kill a bunny during the local war games. His only real friend is the rolly polly, bespectacled Yorki. He also has an invisible friend: the imaginary dopey incarnation of Adolf himself, portrayed by Waititi.
In a sense, taking this prominent role on, with his inherent slapstick and humor, allows the director to possess the man and deconstruct him, ridiculing him from within. It’s not elemental but like many of the Nazis portrayed in Hogan’s Heroes, Waititi has some Jewish heritage, further underlying his caricature.
Rebel Wilson is good for a few of her typical bawdy punchlines and Steve Merchant as the creepily skeletal, smiling Gestapo man manages to walk the film’s tightrope of humor and lingering menace quite well. Sam Rockwell is another walking joke waiting to go off, and yet even he is allowed moments of warmth and ultimate redemption.
Scarlett Johannson asserts herself in a maternal role as one of the legitimately decent people in the movie. Whether or not it’s one of her best performances, I’ve never seen her quite like this and that is compliment enough. She reminds us, through her affectionate devotion toward her son, the powerful, if monumental, undertaking parenting can be. How goodness and decency can cover a world of sins. How laughter and yes, even dance, can be a window to some small semblance of humanity.
One is also reminded Waititi is a genuine storyteller because it’s a tenuous line to balance humor with the bleakness, injecting the story with tension and tragedy in equal measures. You half expect the film to skimp on the ruthless nature of Nazism in favor of far easier put-downs. Instead, it searches out hope within the world and less fickle themes, without entirely dismissing reality.
Thomasin Mackenzie (the brilliant actress from Leave No Trace) goes part of the way in making this possible. Because she is the girl in the walls. She’s not a rat. As Jojo comes to realize, she’s a person. A victim certainly, but she’s also got strength and defiance. After all, her people have a history of wrestling with angels. She comes out of the same hardy tradition.
What she brings into the picture is a complexity to upend everything in Jojo’s fanciful mind. What first begins as a horror trope quickly evolves almost reluctantly into mutual understanding. If his relationship with his mother holds such a stake in his life, this curious new friendship is the crutch of the film, containing its message.
In the final moments, life is back to some form of normalcy. They stand out on the streets letting their bodies free for the first time set to David Bowie’s “Helden” (or “Heroes”). Instantly this feels like Perks of Being a Wallflower and yet somehow this kind of association doesn’t feel wrong because I think Waititi worked so hard to not make this just another WWII movie cut out of the same mold.
It has this universal feeling of adolescence while not totally disregarding history and yet it’s free and comfortable enough to pull it out of its context and flair it with colors and touches of humor. The joy is how heart and hope are the final building blocks even beyond the laughter. The key is how it’s never at the true expense of the victims. Somehow it’s more tender than I was ever expecting. It wants to continue the conversation. Whether or not you agree entirely with its methods, it does seem like a noble task to undertake.