One of the old jokes about the entertainment industry is how a TV show like Hogan’s Heroes got green lit. The telling varies, but it basically boils down to imagining a pitch meeting where someone goes, “It’s set in a Nazi POW camp… AND IT’S A COMEDY!” I was thinking about that gag a lot as I watched Jojo Rabbit, now in wide release, because only someone like Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, What We Do in the Shadows) could get away with such an audacious premise these days. Based on Christine Leunen’s book, “Caging Skies,” (which all but guarantees this film will be heavily campaigning for the Adapted Screenplay Oscar) Waititi takes the helm and brings to life an uproarious black satire featuring himself as a bumbling, jolly version of Adolf Hitler.
Set in the closing months of World War II, the main focus of the film is a young boy named Johannes Betzler (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis; his twin brothers Gilby and Harden are used for a sight gag about clones), an eager member of the Hitler Youth, who goes to an indoctrination camp to learn how to be a proper Nazi soldier. He gleefully takes to his tasks, like book burning and knife play, while the girls at camp do their duty by learning how to get pregnant. One day, he is ordered to kill a rabbit, but he can’t do it, earning him the derisive titular nickname (because the Nazi party can’t have people with a conscience, you see). However, he is encouraged by his imaginary friend, Hitler himself, and he decides to prove himself by swiping a grenade and throwing it better than anyone. Of course, it literally blows up in his face, causing severe injuries.
As he recovers, his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) puts him to work at the local party office, where his now-demoted camp counselors (Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, and Rebel Wilson) give him small tasks so that he can feel involved, like posting propaganda fliers around town. One day, when he returns home early, he discovers that his mother has been harboring a Jewish teenager named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie from last year’s gem, Leave No Trace) in the walls of their house. Elsa was a friend of Jojo’s sister, who died of influenza before the events of the film began, and Rosie – secretly working for the German resistance – feels it’s her duty to save Elsa, since she couldn’t save her daughter.
Johansson gives a nomination-worthy performance here, as she balances her own morality against trying to be a loving and supportive mother to a blossoming jingoist, even though she knows it’s the wrong path for him. She’s alternately playful, tender, and serious when needed, sometimes within a single scene. She flirts with the soldiers, nurtures her son, and grieves with Elsa, all while maintaining an almost morose joy in her life (there’s always time to dance). It’s a very versatile performance.
Not to be outdone is modern comedy legend Stephen Merchant, shining in a single scene appearance as Deertz, a “friendly neighborhood Gestapo” agent (and looking like Arnold Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark) who comes to inspect Jojo’s house. Between multiple running takes on a “Heil Hitler” gag between him, his deputies, Jojo, and Elsa (posing as Jojo’s sister) and his euphoric glee at seeing Jojo’s room (“If only more young boys had your blind fanatcism…”), his brief foray into the story is a hilarious highlight of the film, and also leads to one of the few pure shock moments in the movie.
There are a lot of great sight gags throughout, everything from confusion over dogs versus actual German shepherds to Jojo’s best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) accidentally blowing up a post office. At one point imaginary Hitler mentions he’s having unicorn for dinner, the visual of which is something to behold. The drills the campers go through are mostly just exercises in futility, as Rockwell’s “Captain K” knows the war is essentially a lost cause at this point, but they still have to go through the motions, leading to some rather hysterical moments as eager adolescents often come close to killing themselves for nothing and he has to at least pretend to give a crap about preventing that.
But really, the crux of the film comes down to Jojo’s two main relationships: the imaginary one with Hitler and the real one with Elsa. With Waititi’s Hitler, Jojo gets to live out his fantasy of being a hero to the Fatherland, but their interplay is what really sells the movie. When he first discovers Elsa (losing his precious Hitler Youth pocket knife in the process), he consults Hitler about what to do, with the pair saying their most obvious solution at the same time. “Negotiate!/Burn down the house and blame Winston Churchill!” There’s a manic aplomb with which Waititi takes the character, making him equal parts comic foil and abusive parental figure. He’s Hitler as a perpetual man-child, representing the stunted thinking of racism and anti-Semitism in general, as well as the emotional and intellectual holding pattern Jojo’s been in since his father left to fight in the war.
When it comes to Elsa, Jojo finally has to do some growing up. Not only must he match wits with someone older and smarter than him, but through conversation, he must flush out a lifetime of bullshit, from the absurd (how Jews are made) to the grounded (dealing with grief, understanding human attraction, etc.). It’s in this relationship where the film most reaches for poignancy, and to an extent it succeeds. Because while it’s somewhat treacly and predictable, Jojo does have to learn some degree of humanity to be a likable character, and Elsa’s patient teasing brings out the good person we all know is there. Is it a bit trite to learn empathy through the plight of a Jewish girl in a Holocaust-adjacent film? Yeah, but that doesn’t make it any less sweet when Jojo writes fake letters from Elsa’s boyfriend to comfort her.
On the whole, this will probably rank as one of the better films of the year. It’s a humongous gamble to make a lighthearted movie about Nazis in this day and age, particularly one that never mentions the atrocities of the Third Reich and plays Hitler for laughs. I can certainly see why some people might find that idea offensive. But again, this is satire. It’s meant to expose the wrongs of the world through the absurd, and in that respect, the film succeeds in droves. Taika Waititi is an absolute scream as a dopey, childish Adolf Hitler, Scarlett Johansson gives one of her best performances, and the cast all around soars in one of the best satires of recent memory, with just enough heart to make sure it doesn’t all come off cynical. This film is definitely worth your time, if nothing else than to hear David Bowie in German.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What are some of your favorite satires? Can you imagine if a bungling, racist moron became a world leader in today’s world? Let me know!