‘JoJo Rabbit’ mocks Hitler in child-centric satiric fantasy

Scarlett Johansson (with Sam Rockwell, left, and Roman Griffin Davis) stars as a loving German mom in “Jojo Rabbit.”

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Mel Brooks has said, at various times and in various ways, the best way to get back at Hitler is to ridicule him, and Brooks certainly did exactly that in his comedy “The Producers.” Now New Zealand-born  director/writer/comedian Taika Waititi takes his crack at ridiculing Nazis and Adolf Hitler with his satiric fantasy “JoJo Rabbit.”  

Making a comedy about Nazis is a tricky thing, requiring the right balance between mocking derision and the reality of what they did. Some think Mel Brooks got it right, as did Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator,” while other filmmakers have tried, with varying degrees of success. Waititi, who describes himself as a “Polynesian Jew,” seems to hit the right mark with “JoJo Rabbit,” mocking Hitler in his own wildly imaginative way, but including elements of pathos and tragic reality in a fantasy told through the eyes of a young German boy.

Lonely 10-year-old JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis) has bought into what all Germany seems to believe, patriotically embracing Nazi nationalism and joining the Hitler Youth. He relishes the uniform but mostly the sense of belonging. JoJo lives alone with his colorful, outgoing mother Rosie (Scarlett Johannson) while his father is off fighting the war in Italy. His main companion is his imaginary friend Adolf (played by Waititi), who looks like Hitler but is actually a rather silly character. 

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JoJo obediently believes when the Nazis say Jews are bad, even though he has never met one and has trouble keeping straight all the “evil” traits the Nazis say they have. When he actually meets a Jew, it is a teenage girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, who made a strong debut in “Leave No Trace”), who his mother is hiding in an upstairs closet. JoJo is more scared of her than anything. Elsa picks up on his fears, and uses that to threaten him into silence. Don’t say a word or I will use my power to control your mind, she warns. Intimidated but still curious, he ventures to ask why Jews have these powers. She tells him “because we are the Chosen People.”

“JoJo Rabbit” is actually a mix of comedy and pathos, a wild satiric fantasy from a child’s view, into which more of harsh reality intrudes as it unfolds. Waititi is of Maori, Russian Jewish and Irish heritage, and has sometimes used his mother’s maiden name, Cohen, professionally. His mockumentary “What We Do In The Shadows,” about a group of ineffective, bickering vampire roommates, was an international hit, as was “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” his comedy about a boy and a grumpy old man on the run in the wilderness. 

The same loopy, fantasy-filled humor and child-centric logic shows up in “JoJo Rabbit,” which the director adapted into a screenplay from Christine Leunen’s novel “Caging Skies.” Waititi’s grandfather fought in World War II, and the director experienced prejudice growing up, but he has said he thinks it is important to remember that children are not born hating, but learn it. 

Still, asking an audience to get comfortable with a German boy as a main character is a big leap. Waititi takes the approach that this is a child who has been tricked by adults telling lies, many of whom were themselves fooled by Hitler and Nazi propaganda. The director deflates their power by making most Nazis in this film objects of ridicule. 

At first, JoJo embraces the Nazis’ propaganda with naive patriotism without really understanding it. When he goes off to camp with other Hitler Youth, it seems like going to summer camp. The camp leader Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his assistants Finkel (Alfie Allen) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) look impressive in their uniforms and exude comically broad swagger. In his welcome to the campers, Klenzendorf mentions that the war is going badly for Germany and a recent assassination attempt on Hitler, but then quickly denounces those rumors as lies and gives a rousing patriotic speech. The boys are told they will learn to become soldiers while the girls will clean and learn about their future duty as mothers. But all the boys really hear is that they all will get cool knives and get to use real weapons. 

The film starts out very much in a child’s world fantasy realm, where the war is a distant idea that does not intrude directly on JoJo’s life. But as the story progresses, reality intrudes more and more, forcing JoJo to face what the Nazis are really about and adding emotionally touching moments and personal heartbreak. 

“JoJo Rabbit” offers a creative satire with humor and humanity, about a German boy discovering what lies Nazi grown-ups told, in the unique, entertaining and moving style of director/writer Waititi.