Jojo Rabbit ★★★1/2
When your 10 year-old's friend is named Adolf
If you think it’s impossible to make Hitler and the Nazis funny, check out the parodies of “Downfall” (2004). YouTube is well-stocked with sub-titled take-offs on Hitler’s German-language verbal assaults—there may be thousands on the site—and at least 8 feature the Führer ranting about the Buffalo Bills: Hitler learns about Terrell Owens joining the Bills; Hitler finds out the Bills cut Fred Jackson; Hitler (a Bills fan) is informed that the team has hired Doug Marrone as head coach.
Unlike the Hitler of “Downfall,” the Adolf of “Jojo Rabbit” is played with comic irony, as if he’s not quite real—and he isn’t. He’s the imaginary friend of Jojo (pitch-perfect newcomer Roman Griffin Davis), an altogether earnest 10 year-old German boy caught up in Nazi fanaticism during the final year of the Second World War. (New Zealander Taika Waititi, who plays Adolf Hitler, directed and adapted the screenplay from Christine Leumens’ novel “Caging Skies.”) Without a shred of irony, Jojo proudly wears the uniform of the Nazi youth movement, puts up Nazi flyers around town, and participates in a summer camp where he is taught to shoot a gun, throw a hand grenade, and—to demonstrate the courage to kill the enemy—to strangle a rabbit, a scene that produces the film’s title. Jojo is aided in his exploits by his fat friend Yorki, who is similarly lacking in irony but is high on comedy (another newcomer, the droll Archie Yates).
As the German officer in charge of the youth camp and the main contact for Jojo with the German army, Sam Rockwell steals the show, as he did playing the perpetual rookie police officer in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017). Rockwell once again plays a character who is one person on the outside and another on the inside; here, the Nazi Captain Klenzendorf with a moral, human core, though in this case with humor, rather than subtlety—and, of course, irony. Jojo’s mother, Rosie, is a gorgeous, red-lipped and tough Scarlett Johansson, just right for a 1940s liberated woman. She begrudgingly tolerates her son’s behavior (she has no choice) and tries to love him out of Nazism. Johansson’s is the weakest character, starting with an accent that doesn’t quite work.
“Jojo Rabbit” might be likened to an addiction drama, in that Jojo has to change, to “get well,” in a sense, for the film to work. The opportunity to do so arises early on, when Jojo discovers that his mother—a participant in the Resistance—is harboring a Jewish girl in mid-adolescence in an attic space. Teenage Elsa resembles a somewhat older Anne Frank with more agency. She is entirely serious at times and playful at others, frightened and frightening, victim and aggressor (a nuanced performance by Thomasin McKenzie of 2018’s “Leave No Trace”). Jojo is horrified by his discovery, and the encounter provides the opportunity for what proves to be a complex relationship—with a Jew!—as well as for some tense and revealing moments when the Gestapo comes to the house to check things out.
In addition to irony, the film employs a variety of comedic forms, including slapstick, parody—even a sight gag featuring “German shepherds.” But the film is not without seriousness of purpose, at times signaled with quotations from the intellectual poet, Rainier Maria Rilke. The screenplay works by moving from ideology and politics (it opens with documentary footage of hordes of adoring Hitler fans raising their hands to him—providing echoes of some present-day rallies) to the individual and the personal. It also has moments of tragedy, one in particular for which Jojo—and the audience—are unprepared; there’s no space in the narrative for a character deeply traumatized and in profound pain.
The challenge to situating comedy amid the horrors of Nazism has been met in films like Tarantino’s 2009 “Inglourious Basterds” and Roberto Benigni’s 1997 “Life Is Beautiful.” “Jojo Rabbit” succeeds as well; in the end it’s a heart-warming drama with a moral center and a genuinely funny, laugh-out-loud film—almost as funny as the “Downfall” spoof, “Hitler finds out Obama will be re-elected.”
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Taika Waititi, Roman Griffin Davis, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie, Archie Yates.
Runtime: 108 minutes