It’s springtime for Hitler and life is beautiful. At least it is for Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, a 10-year-old German boy who’s been thoroughly indoctrinated by Hitler Youth. That is, until he discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl at home and, boom, his world turns upside down.
That’s essentially what happens in “Caging Skies,” a 2008 novel by Christine Leunens that bears some resemblance in plot — but hardly any in tone — to Jojo Rabbit, the polarizing but potently funny film that New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi has made of it. If you know this one-of-a-kind filmmaker’s work (see: Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows), you know that humor is his preferred form of expression.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry — sometimes at the same time. But love or hate Jojo Rabbit, it’s damn near impossible to shake. Injecting monkeyshines into Nazi horrors sure didn’t hurt Mel Brooks’ The Producers or, for that matter, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. And Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful won an Oscar despite using the Holocaust to press emotional buttons. At the Toronto Film Festival, where Jojo Rabbit premiered last month, the critical hand-wringing about the film’s uneasy mix of slapstick and sentiment did nothing to stop the movie from winning the coveted People’s Choice Award, often an Oscar harbinger (like last year’s Green Book). Our suggestion: Stick with Waititi. Give or take a few structural stumbles, he’s worth following anywhere.
Waititi immediately distinguishes itself from the self-serious source material, establishing a farcical opening to the sounds of the Beatles singing a German cover of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” while documentary footage rolls of National Socialists sieg-heiling. Jojo, played by Roman Griffin Davis in one of the best performances ever by a child actor, doesn’t merely subscribe to Hitler Youth; he thinks of the fuhrer as his friend, a surrogate daddy and imaginary buddy with whom he can share his feelings. And with Waititi, a Polynesian Jew who’s cast himself as Hitler, the leader of the Third Reich is mocked early and often.
At a Nazi boot camp for kids, Jojo is trained by the one-eyed Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his minions, broadly played by Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen. Though he finds a pudgy best friend in Yorki (a terrific Archie Yates), Jojo is forever an outcast. Humiliated when a nearby exploding grenade scars his face and legs, the kid is laughed out of junior military training for failing to prove his manhood by strangling a rabbit, hence the nickname. Audiences have been laughing at Nazis since Charlie Chaplin played the fictional Adenoid Hynkel of Tomania in 1940’s The Great Dictator. But a persistent argument against Jojo Rabbit is that it offers nothing new in its soft-edged condemnation of tyrants. With anti-Semitism on the rise along with other hate crimes, the film’s timely and subversive message surely bears repeating.
With his father at war (during the waning weeks of World War II), responsibility for Jojo falls solely to his mother, Rosie, beautifully played by Scarlett Johansson in a performance of uncommon complexity and feeling. Rosie is clearly appalled by her son’s Nazi rhetoric. In one telling scene, she walks him past a line of Jews hanging from the gallows. The boy’s response — a babyish “yuck” — is a lesson in how denial is taught to more than just children. But Rosie doesn’t dare speak for fearing of being carted off by the Gestapo, in the sinister person of Stephen Merchant. A secret member of the resistance, Rosie is using her home to hide a teenage Jewish girl, Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie, the breakout star of Leave No Trace). When Jojo discovers the young woman behind a fake wall in his late sister’s bedroom, he treats her at first like a monster with horns, the kind he draws in the book he’s prepared to please the fuhrer. Called “Yoo-Hoo, Jew,” the book is a juvenile parody of the worst of mankind. Hitler, of course, is delighted. But as Jojo gets to know, and even crush on Elsa, his conscience kicks in, sparking the imaginary dictator to tantrums and the lad to a new life of the mind.
Though the resolution of this crisis is predictable, the humanist in Waititi brings intimacy and indelible passion to each step in the boy’s journey to empathy. The film, which grows less comic and more delicate as it moves toward its foregone conclusion, may fall short of greatness, but it never sinks to the maudlin. With expert help from cinematographer Mihai Malaimare (The Master) and composer Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles), the auteur walks a tightrope with uncommon skill.
Elsa tells Jojo that what she misses most is the freedom to dance, a reminder of a time before unspeakable horror stopped the music.
It’s a modest goal. But it’s in the small moments that Jojo Rabbit achieves its greatest impact. Waititi’s faith in the notion that a child will lead us out of ignorance may be naïve. It’s also deeply affecting. Besides, isn’t truth always the first casualty of indoctrination, whether you live in the era of fake news or not? The first words of the Leunens novel come to mind: “The great danger of lying is not that lies are untruths, and thus unreal, but that they become real in other people’s minds.”