“Oh good, another Hitler comedy! It’s been too long,” said no studio development executive, ever.
But of course, absurd as the idea may seem, some attempts to wring humor from the horrors of Nazi Germany have stood the test of time: Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not To Be,” Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” and Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful,” to name a few.
Now comes the boldly, unabashedly quirky “Jojo Rabbit” by New Zealand director Taika Waititi, who attempts this fiendishly difficult balancing act at a time when Nazi jokes seem even more potent and dangerous than a few decades ago.
And that is precisely the point, Waititi says: Now, especially now, is the time to remind younger generations of what happened more than 70 years ago. And what better tool, as Brooks has posited, than humor? That’s his argument, anyway.
Whether you agree or not — and indeed, many may not — it helps to know where the director is coming from, personally. He is both Jewish, through his mother, and Maori, through his father. He has spoken of experiencing prejudice as a child, and says he’s always been interested in stories told through the eyes of children.
That’s exactly what he does in “Jojo Rabbit,” which, though it features high-profile names like Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell, is anchored by a hugely sympathetic young actor, Roman Griffin Davis, as a 10-year-old boy trying to be the very best Nazi he can.
It’s hard to believe this is young Roman’s film debut; he manages to exude both a youthful whimsy and a sense of aplomb that belies his age. It’s also hard to imagine the film succeeding without such a sensitive and winning performance at its core.
We meet Jojo toward the end of the war, in the fictional town of Falkenheim. (The film is based on the 2004 novel “Caging Skies,” by Christine Leunen.) He lives with his mother, Rosie (Johansson), a spunky and radiant free spirit with, we will learn, a major secret.
But really, Jojo lives with Adolf Hitler.
Yes, Hitler’s his imaginary friend, sort of his Nazi life coach, as the young boy prepares to don his uniform and join the Jungvolk of the Hitler Youth, where youngsters are indoctrinated into the cause. Hitler is played here by Waititi himself as more of a benignly goofy, gangly misfit than, well, the real thing. (He says he wasn’t his own first choice for the role; actors weren’t clamoring to be Hitler.)
At training camp, Jojo’s commander is the preposterously thickheaded Captain Klenzendorf (a predictably amusing Rockwell, who knows from thickheaded characters), aided by his equally misguided assistants, Finkel and Fraulein Rahm. The latter is played by Rebel Wilson, as intentionally incongruous in a World War II film as you’d imagine. “I’ve had 18 kids for Germany,” she declares to the young girls, who are expected to do the same.
Jojo is ordered to demonstrate his Nazi credentials by wringing the neck of a rabbit. He can’t bring himself to kill the poor thing, and runs away into the forest, humiliated.
He tries to redeem himself, but soon he’ll face an even more shocking challenge. In a closet, he discovers that his own mother has been secretly harboring his worst enemy, the villain he’s been taught to despise above all others: the Jew. Only this one’s name is Elsa, and she’s young and beautiful. And he can’t find her horns, or any signs of evil powers.
Jojo’s first instinct is to alert the Nazis about Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, the lovely New Zealand actress who recalls a young Nicole Kidman). But he soon realizes he and his mother would likely be killed, too. And so he slowly gets to know her.
Where does the Queen Jew lay her eggs, he asks? Do you live in caves? Sometimes, she allows, “We hang from the ceiling.” Gradually, the two become closer. Elsa tries to get Jojo to realize he’s not really a Nazi — just a 10 year-old “who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”
A tragedy late in the film will severely test the deepening relationship between the two. But the war will eventually end, with drastic implications for every character. “It’s definitely not a good time to be a Nazi,” notes Jojo’s young buddy Yorki drily, as the regime collapses around them.
Is it now, or ever, a good time for a Nazi-themed comedy? That’s as difficult a question to answer as it ever was. But Waititi injects enough heart and wit into this enterprise to make a case that artists like him should at least be trying to find creative ways to educate new generations about the horrors of the past.
“Jojo Rabbit,” a Fox Searchlight release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language.” Running time: 108 minutes. Three stars out of four.q