Maybe, when you were growing up, you had an imaginary friend. Someone who only you could see, who counseled you and kept you company. It might have been a 10-foot rabbit, or a brown, furry mastodon-like creature, or a boy named Tony who talked to you through your finger. Or maybe, if you’re Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old boy living in Vienna in the final days of World War II, your imaginary best bud is a failed Austrian painter who became radicalized, was appointed chancellor of Germany, invaded a good portion of Europe, and is still synonymous with the evil that men do. You know the one.
Jojo Rabbit has been referred to as “Taika Waititi’s Hitler comedy” ever since the project was announced, a double-take-inducing distinction that it leans into with gusto. From the moment that the New Zealand writer-director shows up as Der Führer, giving the lad a pep talk and bounding out of the house with him to the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (in German, natch), this already divisive movie announces its declaration of irreverence in bold italicized font. It’s going to mess with some loaded iconography. Giving the world a goofy God of Thunder? That’s one thing. Trying to make a hatemonger and the sight of a boy heil-ing and skipping down the street seem hilarious? A few minutes in, and you’re already choking on your giggles.
Our young hero earns the nickname “Jojo Rabbit” after he refuses to wring a bunny’s neck during a Hitler Youth training weekend. No amount of macho posturing by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a wounded officer reassigned to prepping tomorrow’s cannon fodder, or prodding from the camp’s mother hen, Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson), it seems, can turn the boy into a killing machine for the Motherland. After an attempt to prove he’s Übermensch material leaves him slightly disfigured, his mother (Scarlett Johansson as a human effervescent bubble with an accent) gives him a reprieve from gung-ho duty. While she’s out one day, Jojo hears a noise upstairs. This is Elsa (Leave No Trace‘s Thomasin McKenzie), a young Jewish woman hiding in their attic. She’s just a girl — no horns, no fangs, nothing that Jojo has been told characterizes the people he’s been taught to despise. The disparity is causing a schism in his head. And it’s a complication that’s making Imaginary Best Friend Adolf H. very, very cross.
The idea of history’s boogeyman as a make-believe pal isn’t in the source material, Christine Leunens’ 2008 novel Chasing Skies — it’s an element that Waititi introduces into the film. But it is an important addition to the narrative, given that it takes place in a genre that’s in danger of itself becoming a joke. People can and will still make effective WWII dramas told from the viewpoint of those who suffered through unthinkable horror. (Festivalgoers could check out one such example also in the lineup: an adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel The Painted Bird that was by all accounts a brutal, soul-shattering experience.) It’s just that overfamiliarity has now bred not contempt so much as a strong sense of camp in this particular strain of storytelling. Such self-serving somber works about what happened in Europe in the ’30s and ’40s — the examples are obvious, and legion — run the risk of reducing real-life tragedy to a set of tropes. You don’t doubt the good intentions of the people who tell these tales. But you sometimes feel like a checklist is being ticked off in the name of easily “moving” audiences to tears and Academy members to cast votes.
And there are numerous folks who have already accused Jojo Rabbit of being just that, notably when its second half switches gears. You can understand why some may accuse Johansson’s character of being a manic pixie dream mom, of claiming that a camera move that caused the premiere’s audience to audibly gasp is manipulative (it is, and yet it still works exactly as it needs to), that trying to toggle between sick humor and sensitivity is a tonal mismatch.
But it’s that exact combination that somehow makes both halves work. The broadness of Waititi’s “Shitler” acting petulant and jumping out of windows, of kids inadvertently blowing buildings up with bazookas, of Rockwell’s military buffoon and Stephan Merchant doing a riff on Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s reptilian Gestapo villain, actually knocks you out of a comfort zone. It is now more shocking to aim for laughs with such loaded material. And when you’re reminded of what’s going on in the world around Jojo, you find yourself shocked back into the gravitas of the situation rather than taking it for granted. (It also helps that Davis gives one of the most impressive child-actor performances in ages; the filmmaker has always been good when it comes to working with kids, but the way this youngster nails the comic timing and emotional heavy lifting is amazing.) This is not, as some have suggested, just the same old treacle dressed in slapstick and deadpan, west-of-Wes-Anderson aesthetics. It’s an insane tightrope walk Taika Waititi is trying to walk here. It’s a massive gamble of his post-Thor: Ragnarok industry clout that pays off more often than not. It’s the queasy yet moral, occasionally questionable, and surprisingly tender Hitler comedy this half-Jewish filmmaker was born to make.
People have successfully mined comedy from the players in this dark period of history successfully before; people have also failed spectacularly trying to hit funny bones and heartstrings with the same. Yet the movie that keeps coming to mind when you think of this coming-of-age film is Mel Brooks’ The Producers, a film that took the audacity of Third Reich jokes and sold them as the ultimate example of outrageous bad taste. Jojo Rabbit weaponizes that same bad taste in the name of something else: a prod from narrative complacency. “They didn’t say ‘Let’s never forget’ just as a joke,” the director noted at the post-premiere Q&A. “We have to keep finding new and inventive ways to tell this story.” You may not dig the way Waititi is trying to rejigger the genre-narrative around a historic moment that seems constantly in danger of repeating itself these days. But you most assuredly will not forget what he is saying because of how he is saying it.