There seem to be two schools of thought around addressing Hitler and Nazism in media. You can use comedy and satire to poke fun at Hitler and expose the fundamental flaws and childishness of Nazi ideology. With this direction, you run the risk of downplaying the magnitude of the horrors Hitler’s regime wrought. You can also play it straight and present the state of Nazi Germany as it was, in all its unthinkable and stomach-turning inhumanity. But here you risk turning Hitler into some larger-than-life figure, providing him and his beliefs a dignity they don’t deserve. All movies that decide to directly take on Hitler stick to one of these extremes, although the few comedies that exist satirize the subject matter from a distance. For example, Charlie Chaplin’s “The Dictator” takes place in a made up country resembling Nazi Germany, and Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” satirizes Nazi propaganda under the pretext of an entirely different plot. Few movies endeavour to straddle these two diametrically opposed tones of comic satire and painful reality. But “Jojo Rabbit” does. It walks that tonal tightrope with aplomb and uses its position of constant tonal dissonance against its audience to supreme effect.
“Jojo Rabbit” is a dark comedy about Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old member of the Hitler Youth living in late-war Germany with his single mother, Rosie (played with delicious charisma by Scarlett Johansson). Jojo is a Nazi fanatic and idolizes Hitler so much that his imaginary best friend is a cartoonish version of the tyrant (played by the film’s director, Taika Waititi). Waititi’s character constantly gives Jojo horrible advice, especially concerning a young Jewish girl named Elsa, whom Jojo discovers living secretly in his house. As Jojo interrogates Elsa for “Jewish Secrets,” he slowly begins to question his mindless fervor as Nazi Germany crumbles around him.
The film starts with Jojo on a Hitler Youth training expedition, also known as “Happy Nazi Summer Camp.” The kids, led by adult counselors who act as hyperactive as their campers, haphazardly practice swastika formations, accidentally stab each other while throwing knives and draw crude caricatures of Rabbis. It’s all primo dark comedy. The montage ends with Jojo bragging that he wouldn’t hesitate to kill for his bestest friend, Hitler. In the next scene, one of the counselors tells Jojo to show his willingness to kill for his country by breaking a rabbit’s neck. Suddenly, the over-the-top nationalism that we were all just laughing at transforms into something startlingly real. That’s what this movie is: weaponized tonal whiplash. One moment Jojo is skipping all over town, putting up propaganda posters on assignment from his buffonish Nazi superiors, the next we see the fruits of that propaganda, a row of people hung in the town square. The dark humor of this film doesn’t trivialize the horrors of history, it highlights them with sobering effect, telling us a joke and then startling us out of our laughter by revealing what happens when that joke is taken seriously.
Nazi Germany in this film is a land of children, and the film pokes fun at the sheer ignorance and immaturity of Nazi theology. Jojo creates ridiculous superstitions about Jews and their telepathic abilities and insectoid hive queen and relays them to his adult superiors who believe him with complete sincerity. Jojo tries to be a brave warrior for Germany, and in a state of ecstatic passion, at one point, he steals a grenade from his consoler and throws it, nearly blowing himself up.
“Jojo Rabbit” is a coming of age story about a boy who starts out thinking that in order to be a man he has to be as childish as everyone around him. But Jojo comes of age by rejecting that childishness. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that adherence to this blatantly simplistic way of thinking is what drove the children of Germany to mindlessly kill. The horrors of World War II unfold for us as they do for Jojo, his pastel fairytale village turning into the grey ruins of wartime Germany by the end of the film, as if we are falling out of a dream. We see the silly fanaticism that Jojo indulged in at Hitler Youth camp resurface later as some new cruelty, and the audience becomes unable to find the breath to laugh anymore. Waititi shows that Hitler’s beliefs were those of an immature buffoon, but when taken with the seriousness they were, these ideas made people turn their backs on what was good, true and real. When childishness becomes maturity and maturity childishness, the world falls apart.
Waititi’s film is nothing short of transcendently brilliant. It is both hilarious and harrowing, both dreamlike and real. And I haven’t even mentioned the superb acting, or the beautiful cinematography or the incredible score (apparently The Monkees sound great in German, who’da thunk it?). It does service to the horrors of the Third Reich through disservice to the ideals that spun those horrors. “Jojo Rabbit” is probably one of the best World War II films I’ve seen as it actually deconstructs the evil of Hitler’s regime from the inside rather than having it as some biblical force seen by others.
Either way, if you want to laugh at Hitler without making him a joke, then you can’t go wrong with “Jojo Rabbit.”