At my showing of Jojo Rabbit, the director Taika Waititi appeared on screen before the movie started to tell us his mother is Jewish and that his film is not intended to address hate as much as promote peace. It felt strange, like if Todd Phillips appeared before his Joker movie to let us know he had an OCD cousin and supported background checks.
Obviously Netflix PR felt Waititi had to defend his new film from the criticism that it plays too funny and loose with Nazism. But come on, from Charlie Chaplin to Donald Duck to Mel Brooks, Adolph Hitler and his cohorts have been spoofed plenty, and Waititi’s portrayal of Hitler as a goofy imaginary friend to a 10-year-old boy may differ in tone but not in intent.
The device is fitting with one of the many talents this director has, in this case his ability to see and understand events from the view of an adolescent protagonist. Case in point: we’ve all sat through at least one of those get-off-my-lawn-codger-comes-to-accept-troubled-kid movies. The damn things win Oscars all the time, no matter how tone deaf they are. Waititi’s codger-kid movie was Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but the film’s perspective and sense of humor came from the boy, not the codger, and the result was 100 times more charming and relatable than any Million-Dollar Torino ever was.
In Jojo Rabbit, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a timid boy living in Berlin toward the end of WWII, and his need to fit in makes him vulnerable to Aryan propaganda, which is getting more and more hyperbolic as the Nazis are losing their war. Jojo conjures his version of Hitler as a way to buck up his confidence and fealty during mandatory Nazi youth training.
This is fanaticism presented from inside the mind of a kid, an idea that could get mired in over-serious dissection. But that’s just not this director. He makes his points with farce, so at first he focuses on the immature and silly aspects of Jojo’s Hitler. But as Jojo starts to see clearer, his Hitler gets testier, less funny and downright threatening.
What opens Jojo’s eyes, what changes his perspective and his Hitler, are the steady influence of his mother, played by Scarlett Johansson with a beautiful balance of steely and loving, and the Jewish girl, Elsa, she’s hiding in the attic, whom Jojo discovers when he’s confined to home after a training injury scars his face and gives him a limp.
Jojo wants the girl to tell him everything about Jews so he can write a book called Yoohoo Jew, intended to educate his fellow Germans about the race. The ‘facts’ he wants her to substantiate are of course all the outrageous anti-Semitic nonsense he’s been fed, and here is the one place I can understand some complaints, as Waititi wallows in humorous depictions of horns and tails and rabbis using foreskins as earplugs. It’s logical that adolescent Jojo would be so fascinated, but the jokes go on longer than they need to.
As the film moves along, Waititi starts folding in more sweet moments and bitter realities, and if you’re not a fan of his style the whole thing could feel curdled. He’s making the point that of course Nazism wasn’t and isn’t funny, but relentlessly depressing depictions of it are not the only way to address it and eventually squelch it.
Love, understanding, and maturity get Jojo past his blind fanaticism. These all take time, and while this process happens to those for whom it needs to happen, the rest of us don’t have to live in the darkness they try to create.
Jojo Rabbit opens nationally on October 18.
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