In ‘Jojo Rabbit’, Fun with Imaginary Hitler
Nearly 80 years have passed since the debut of in-real-time Hitler satires such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Walt Disney’s “Donald Duck in Nutzi Land.” John Boorman even gave us the child’s-eye view of survival in the European theatre with 1987’s semi-autobiographical Hope and Glory, the kind of warm-hearted bildungsroman where the main character watches the Germans bomb his British school and cries “Thank you, Adolf!”
JOJO RABBIT ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Written by: Taika Waititi
Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson
Running time: 108 min
World War Two was hilarious. All those millions dead? Too funny. And that loony Hitler? What a wacko!
For those still shocked–shocked!–at the prospect of Aryan mockery and genocide belittlement, Jojo Rabbit might be a bit triggering. For all the rest of us, who grew up with songs like “Springtime for Hitler” and endless trivializing memes from Downfall, this is all a bit too familiar. By the way, there’s a sly Jojo Rabbit self-own Downfall meme that Fox Searchlight released last summer. Talk about Heil Myself. Every hotsy-totsy Nazi stand and cheer!
You get the drift. Jojo Rabbit doesn’t get many novelty points for its outré adolescent-absurdist take on the Third Reich. True, the film is blazingly funny, from the hyperbolic enthusiasm of a kids’ training camp and the jaded remarks of disillusioned boozer Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), to the dry leer of nosy Gestapo agent Captain Deertz (Stephen Merchant). But as seriously delightful as it is, Taika Waititi’s approach still feels very familiar. Still, there’s a crucial difference: Roman Griffin Davis.
As Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, Davis is irresistible as a warm, sweet, funny, gentle member of the Hitler Youth. “I’m massively into swastikas,” he says a bit too enthusiastically. And why not? Playing soldier is the ultimate boy’s adventure. They even get their own knives! “No stabbing,” they’re reminded. But still.
The film follows Jojo’s arc as he goes from groupthink fanatic to eye-opened humanist. But it’s Davis’ performance that makes him heartachingly sympathetic. This is a rousingly radicalized kid, only 10 years old but already convinced that devilish Jews have horns and smell like Brussel sprouts. He’s also the product of doting widowed mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) and an imaginary father figure that takes the form of Der Führer himself (director Taika Waititi). “Life is a gift,” says his mom. “Libraries are dumb,” says imaginary Hitler. Jojo wants to hate, but his mother’s moral compass is hard to shake.
Rosie is also a secret subversive, quietly rejecting her country’s murderous fascism and, to her son’s utter shock, harboring young Jewish teen Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie) in her attic. While, at first, he’s freaked out by the upstairs stowaway, Jojo can’t help the empathy he starts to develop towards Elsa. “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo,” Elsa tells him. “You’re a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”
Yes, Jojo Rabbit feels glib about the Nazis, despite a few detours into genuine pathos. But global culture is now so far removed from the firsthand devastation of World War Two that a movie like this really works as almost pure metaphor. As history, it’s trite, and as a fairy tale about intolerance, it’s an evergreen. As a commentary on current events and our balkanized tribalism, it’s clearly applicable and more than a little prescient.
What’s most affecting about Jojo Rabbit are the two pop songs that Waititi ingeniously uses to open and close his film: the Beatles’ “Komm Gib mir Deine Hand” and David Bowie’s “Helden.” These are rock legends playing the German versions of arguably their most infectious rock songs. What a delirious dissonance to hear something so familiar and yet so strangely foreign. It melts away xenophilia. It invites cultural communion. And it’s a reminder that Germany was able to survive its severe national trauma by finding a way to integrate again. And, more importantly, others found a way to accept, acknowledge, and even forgive them despite all the horrors.