‘Jojo Rabbit’ shows Hitler through the eyes of a child

For many, the idea of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, a comedy set in Nazi Germany in which a boy’s imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, is so repugnant that there is no way they would consider seeing it.

‘Jojo Rabbit’ shows Hitler through the eyes of a child (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Jojo Rabbit’ shows Hitler through the eyes of a child
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For many, the idea of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, a comedy set in Nazi Germany in which a boy’s imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, is so repugnant that there is no way they would consider seeing it, because they feel a film like this would trivialize the suffering of Holocaust victims.
To be honest, I would have put myself firmly in that group, and I was fully prepared to be disgusted. But I got a surprise: I enjoyed much of it, so much so that I rethought my objection to the premise.
There is a long tradition of comic movie Hitlers. The most famous is Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, a 1940 film in which he plays both a ruler obviously based on Hitler and a Jewish barber. In Mel Brooks’s The Producers, a musical called “Springtime for Hitler” becomes the toast of Broadway. Brooks also remade Ernst Lubitsch’s glittering satire To Be or Not to Be, the original version of which was made at the height of World War II, about a troupe of actors in Nazi-occupied Poland, which involves a Hitler impersonation.
While I can fully understand anyone who is offended by these films, I can also see that there is a place for lampooning even the most evil of tyrants. Anyone who’s ever been teased knows that nothing diminishes power like ridicule.
What’s crucial in the over-the-top world of Jojo Rabbit is that the story is told through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) lives with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who is grieving the loss of his sister. Rosie tries to gently temper Jojo’s enthusiasm for Hitler Youth, but he desperately wants to fit in and conjures up the imaginary Adolf Hitler (played by the director, Taika Waititi himself, who happens to be Jewish), to mentor him.
In one of the movie’s funniest but also horrifying sequences, Jojo is sent to a Hitler Youth camp, where a cruel counselor tries to force him to kill a rabbit, hence the film’s title. Back at home, Jojo discovers that his mother is hiding Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teen. Jojo is at first terrified of and then smitten with Elsa, as well as petrified that if she is discovered, both she and his mother will be killed. While he struggles to keep this secret, his chats with the imaginary Hitler take on a different tone. Hitler becomes more buffoonish when he can’t answer Jojo’s arguments and questions.
The movie is successful in presenting the Nazi era from the point of view of a boy longing to fit in, as distasteful as that may sound, and it is instructive to see from close range how Hitler reeled in his followers. Some critics have objected to the style – the movie’s veneer of hipster chic – more than to the substance. Waititi has directed such high-profile Hollywood films as the last Thor movie and the upcoming one, and he knows how to use production design, comic pacing, slick cinematography and groovy classic rock music to create a playful atmosphere. At times this style gives the story a hard sell that makes it play like a music video. Waititi seems to have been influenced heavily by the films of Wes Anderson, a director whose movies veer from annoying cutesy to amazingly heartfelt. Writing in Variety, Owen Gleiberman called the Jojo Rabbit “Moonreich Kingdom,” a play on the title of Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and I have to agree.
The actors are uniformly outstanding. Davis is quite believable and touching in the title role, and I can’t remember liking Johansson more in anything. She hasn’t played many mothers – she is usually cast for her bombshell beauty – but she is 35 and is natural and sweet as a young mother. But the heart and soul of the movie is Waititi’s clownish, flamboyant performance as the Führer, and he steals every scene he’s in.
If the idea of this still sickens you, though, skip the movie. There’s no need to try to find everything funny if it upsets you. But if you give the movie a chance, it may surprise you as it did me.


Tags nazi movie