In case you haven’t heard of it, “Jojo Rabbit” is a bitter-sweet feel-good comedy about a boy in the ‘Hitler Youth Corps’ who copes with bullying by the aid of his imaginary friend, Hitler himself, written and directed by Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows,” “Thor: Ragnarok”).
If that doesn’t sound wild enough already, Waititi, who in “What We Do in the Shadows” played the lead roll Viago, has cast himself as Hitler, portraying the Fuehrer with a kooky comic energy you would have never guessed would work.
Yet it does work. So, so well.
The story explores what the third Reich would look like in the eyes of a child growing up in the war. At the beginning, 10-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) sees Hitler as a super-star—a vision reflected in the opening credit sequence, wherein 40’s propaganda footage of cheerful crowds of excited Nazi citizens is set to the German language Beatles cover “KommgibmirdeineHand.” Even as the other Nazi’s bully Jojo, calling him a rabbit because he runs away from scary things, his unconditional love of all things Hitler is not shaken. At first Jojo’s anti-Nazi conspiring mother Rosie (Scarlet Johansen) is unable to de-brainwash her child, but when Jojo discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), the Jewish teenager Rosie is hiding in the walls, an unlikely friendship is formed causing Jojo to reevaluate his nationalist devotions.
I’m sure the film (and Waititi’s performance in particular) will be criticized for trivializing fascism, treating Hitler’s regime too lightly, yet I fervently disagree with such assessments. There is an honesty to the film’s portrayal of Nazism from a child’s perspective. Waititi’s cool, zany Hitler is exactly what you’d expect a kid like Jojo to imagine Hitler to be (my German grandmother thought Hitler was cool when she was Jojo’s age, before, like Jojo, she learned what was really going on). There is, of course, an incongruence between Jojo’s image of Hitler and our knowledge of the real man. This is where the comedy comes in. Hitler himself isn’t funny, the fact that a child thinks of Hitler this way is funny. Very funny.
But it’s not all fun and games. “Jojo Rabbit” does not shy away from showing the atrocities wrought by Nazi Germany. While we’ve seen many movies that show the horrors of World War II from the perspectives of soldiers, occupied nations, and the Jewish people, “Jojo Rabbit” focuses on the suffering of the German citizens themselves. Jojo and his friends and family—with the exception of Elsa—are ordinary German people whose lives are ruined by the Nazi government. Everybody suffers under fascism: even the people who voted for it.
The film especially focuses on the damage the war did to children, as the final act largely focuses on children drafted into the army in the Nazi government’s last-ditch effort to save their asses. Here is where Jojo’s aforementioned habit of running away comes in handy. Arming 10-year-olds is an objectively absurd military tactic, and is treated with absurdity in the movie. We all laugh at what the kid does when he’s given a bazooka, yet the emotional consequences these children feel when the war is won is given the gravitas it deserves.
I’ll be honest: these feel-good indie comedies that become heavy dramas in their third acts are a genre that mostly doesn’t do it for me—you can make feel things without forgetting that you’re a comedy—yet while even Waititi’s past film “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” left me wanting at many points, something about “Jojo Rabbit” completely ensnared me. It builds up enough momentum in its funny parts that it gets away with punching you in the heart later on. It’s very funny, and very powerful. I like it a lot, and I think you might too.