While Charlie Chaplin, Mel Brooks, and even Donald Duck have taken shots at lampooning Adolph Hitler, Nazi and holocaust humor still falls into touchy territory. But out of all modern day filmmakers, who better than New Zealand native Taika Waititi to make us laugh and squirm by jumping headfirst into hate-fueled marsh of late World War II Naziism.
Waititi earned a lot of attention when he entered into Marvel’s MCU to make “Thor: Ragnarok”. But his biggest fans love him for his more intimate original comedies like “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”. His new film “Jojo Rabbit” falls in with those smaller gems and you could make a strong case that it is Waititi’s best movie to date.
There are so many great elements at work that make “Jojo Rabbit” such an incredible experience. It’s laugh-out-loud funny with Waititi’s signature off-beat humor hitting most all of its marks. At the same time there are several moments that jolt us back to reality, reminding us that we’re dealing with weighty and often unspeakable matters. Amazingly, Waititi manages these seismic tonal shifts in ways you wouldn’t think possible. And the film’s ability to make you laugh, cry, or be utterly appalled is one of its many strengths.
Set during the waning years of World War II, the story centers on Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old German boy who’s oblivious to the horrors of the war and who blindly loves his Führer. In fact, his imaginary friend is none other than Hitler himself (outlandishly played by Waititi). The bulk of the film is told from his perspective and follows him as he routinely crosses path with the myriad of colorful and often hilarious side characters.
An early sequence gives us a lot of context. Jojo and his best friend Yorki (an infectiously adorable Archie Yates) attend a Nazi Youth Camp. There they’ll be trained in the youthful arts of recognizing Jews, knife throwing, and tossing live grenades. Oh, and during recreation time they’ll get to unwind by burning books. Running the camp is Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a disillusioned sot recently demoted from the battlefield and keenly aware that the Nazi war effort is on its last leg.
So as you can tell much of the humor is built around some ugly and reprehensible history. This includes the abhorrent child brainwashing, vile antisemitism, and of course the Holocaust. Enter Thomasin McKenzie, the fabulous young New Zealander who was so good in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace”. She plays Elsa, a Jewish teen who Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding in the walls of their home. When Jojo discovers her not only does Elsa challenge his ignorance and blind hatred but also his entire indoctrinated worldview.
McKenzie has a sublime ability to convey so much through the softest voice and most earnest expression. Even when her character is challenging Jojo she does it with a quiet gentleness that earns every ounce of our empathy. She shares a good chemistry with the younger Davis who exudes a ton of personality. Johansson brings a lot of heart to the story. Rockwell plays a sarcastic goof (something he does really well). And there are other smaller but equally enjoyable roles from Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant.
“Jojo Rabbit” advertises itself as an “anti-hate satire” and while its a fitting description that sounds really good, the historical baggage is sure to be too much for some people to handle. Personally, I loved its audacity and even more its capacity to make me both laugh and cry. And hats off to Waititi for not crossing the line into the tasteless and offensive while never skirting around the hateful prejudices or repulsive ideologies.
But as the film’s ending quote from poet Rainer Rilke’s so appropriately states “No feeling is final.” And that is the timely message of “Jojo Rabbit”. A young German boy perfecting his “Heil Hitler!” salute in the opening scene eventually sees through veil of hate. And through his journey Waititi shows that meaningful change is indeed possible. Sure, it could have dove deeper into the Nazi atrocities, but that would make for a much different movie. Other films have already done that well. Let “Jojo Rabbit” speak with its own unique voice because it truly has something beautiful to say.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS