In Taika Waititi’s new comedy, a ten-year-old grapples with a very special imaginary friend: Hitler. Now is that funny?
"When you’re grrrob, my son…": director Taika Waititi from New Zealand plays the dictator Photo: 20th Century Fox
The debate about whether it’s okay to laugh at Hitler has become a fixed ritual in the German cultural establishment. This is not meant pejoratively, because for the longest time the ritual was not such a silly part of the necessary coming to terms with the past. The thesis that fascism and the Holocaust are no laughing matter is always met with the counterthesis that, after all, in a free society one should be allowed to make fun of everything. In the debate, decisions are then made on a case-by-case basis.
For the longest time, the premise was: If humor serves the purpose of enlightenment, it’s good; if it’s just silly, people turn up their noses. And if it mocks the wrong people, it is condemned. As I said, this is not a bad procedure. But as is often the case with rituals, it threatens to stiffen and thus lose its persuasive power.
In Taika Waititi’s "Jojo Rabbit" Hitler (played by the director himself) is a rather ridiculous figure from the very beginning: there he is in his brown uniform in the nursery of ten-year-old Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), trying to exude motivation. The boy is a bit apprehensive about his first Hitler Youth retreat. Adolf wants to build him up: He is, after all, the best, most loyal little Nazi he knows. And then they practice the Hitler salute together, but really. So very, very correctly.
Until finally Jojo literally takes off during the race on the road with arms stretched out and held high. The Beatles sing "Komm gib mir deine Hand" from the off. Intercut with the scenes of Jojo arm-lifting and dancing through the alleys of his small German town are archival footage of crowds of people trying to shake Hitler’s hand.
Inappropriate is short-circuited
As a viewer, you feel very much alone in deciding whether to find this funny. You can tell that the inappropriate is being short-circuited – a tried-and-true comedic procedure since at least ancient times – but you’re not sure if it’s going to work.
Waititi, a New Zealander, knows a thing or two about humor. Not only did he make the best superhero comedy to date with "Thor: Judgment Day"; the indie films he was responsible for before that – "Where the Wild People Hunt" and "5 Room Kitchen Coffin" – are marked by a very fine, melancholy-toned sense of the inherent comedy of how people think about themselves.
Whether it’s the little runaway who dreams of a life as a gangsta rapper in the New Zealand wilderness, or the 200-year-old vampire who coquettishly refers to himself as a "cradle robber" as he stalks his now 70-year-old childhood sweetheart – imagined strengths are often transformed into sympathetic human weaknesses in Waititi’s humor.
As a satire on daydreams and invisible friends, "Jojo Rabbit" works perfectly. Little Jojo, who still has to be coached by his Adolf through the Hitler Youth retreat, one day finds a young girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in a closet of the apartment where he lives with his mother (Scarlett Johansson).
A bit like Lubitsch
Elsa is Jewish, he quickly realizes; it takes him much longer to overcome all the crude ideas his Nazi environment whispers to him about Jews and their culture and reconcile them with his true feelings for the 15-year-old. Especially when his mother doesn’t come home one day and Captain Deertz (Stephen Merchant) shows up instead and searches the apartment. When Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) arrives, the viewer actually feels a bit like in Lubitsch’s "To be or not to be" – "Schulz!!!!" – because you don’t know who are the real Nazis here and who are the acting Nazis.
"Jojo Rabbit." Directed by Taika Waititi. With Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson and others, USA 2019, 108 min.
So the film keeps putting you between the chairs – not a very comfortable place. Should you feel for Jojo, disappointed that he can’t keep up with the other Hitler Youth boys? Should you laugh at Rebel Wilson, who spouts nonsense as a Nazi bride? Or should we feel sorry for the increasingly miserable Adolf, who doesn’t like the fact that Jojo is slipping away from him?
The joke is that all the ambivalences don’t feel so bad, but you think – perhaps especially as a German – that they should weigh you down more. Because only the laughter that sticks in your throat is educationally valuable laughter, isn’t it? But if the funny has to be horribly funny at the same time, how could you tell a children’s story with it?
Whether "Jojo Rabbit" works as a Nazi satire remains to be seen. As the story of a boy who finds his way out of learned prejudices, the film with its exhibited lightness proves to be rousing and wonderfully big-hearted: The child at the center, namely, Jojo and his distress of conscience, is always taken seriously.