Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
It isn’t impossible to make a comedy about Adolf Hitler. Mel Brooks got belly laughs out of satirizing the German dictator in his 1967 movie The Producers, and even during the war itself, Hollywood mocked Hitler with movies like the Three Stooges comedy You Nazty Spy! Roberto Benigni’s 1997 Oscar-winner Life Is Beautiful was divisive, but successful — in part because bringing lighthearted playfulness to a concentration camp story was such an unusual choice.
And plenty of things about Hitler himself are ripe for humor: his weird little paintbrush mustache; his obsession with a tall, blond, “pure” Aryan physical ideal when he himself was dark-haired and diminutive; the extensive clips of his vehement, barking speeches. (A decade ago, hundreds of people repurposed a clip of actor Bruno Ganz ranting as Hitler in the movie Downfall into an endlessly hilarious all-purpose meme.) Any traumatic topic is guaranteed to be a rich vein for dark humor and subversive jokes, because people so often process distress by defanging it with laughter.
But even so, turning Hitler into a comic character is difficult, because he comes freighted with so much emotional baggage — especially in film, where any attempts at funny Hitler imagery come pre-contextualized by hundreds of deeply emotional films about his effects on millions of lives, from soldiers and concentration camp victims to the citizens trying to get by under occupation or the disintegration of their homelands. So Taika Waititi’s World War II dramedy Jojo Rabbit, which reimagines Hitler as the goofy imaginary friend of a bullied 10-year-old German boy, starts with a tall hill of skepticism and resistance ahead of it. In the early going, though, Waititi manages to keep the tone light and the humor surreal enough to avoid too much association with the real world. But as his story devolves into melodrama, the comedy curdles.
What’s the genre?
World War II dramedy, based on Christine Leunens’ 2008 novel Caging Skies. The outrageous opening act feels like the kind of straight-faced absurdism Waititi developed in projects like the improv vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows and the unexpected family comedy Hunt For The Wilderpeople. He brings the same kind of deadpan looseness to the character interactions that he brought to the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie Thor: Ragnarok. But then the movie heads straight into conventional World War II drama territory, and becomes a much more familiar film — a sentimental prestige drama.
What’s it about?
Roman Griffin Davis stars as Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, a wee 10-year-old German boy who idolizes Hitler so much that he imagines the dictator (played by Waititi himself) as an ever-present mentor, pal, and one-man cheering squad. Their pretend friendship forms during the waning days of World War II. The more cynical adults in Jojo’s life are well aware that Germany is losing and the country’s future prospects are bleak, but Imaginary Hitler is still blithe and upbeat, and Jojo is utterly committed to the Nazi cause.
And so are his peers, the dozens of prepubescent kids in a training camp where they’re learning skills like grenade use and book-burning. (Or for the girls, “how to get pregnant” to produce the next wave of German soldiers.) Jojo eagerly swallows the propaganda he’s handed by figures like one-eyed veteran Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and detached matron Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson), and he goes home every day theorizing about his chances of killing or capturing a Jew himself.
Then he finds out his beloved mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish refugee, Elsa (standout Leave No Trace star Thomasin McKenzie), in the walls of their home. His first impulse is to turn Elsa in, but it’s clear that would get his mother executed, and Elsa threatens to implicate him as well. Instead, he decides he can justify her presence if he learns about Jews from her, to write a guidebook for German citizens. Inevitably, he comes to see her humanity as they interact. Imaginary Hitler, naturally, disapproves.
What’s it really about?
The rank stupidity of fascism, propaganda, racism, and prejudice in general. In the early, more comedy-focused segments of the film, Jojo eagerly devours information about how Jews are horned, snake-tongued devil-monsters. That naturally leads him to expect dangers from Elsa that don’t play out. (In some of the film’s subtler humor, it actually makes him much less capable of dealing with her, because he’s so terrified of her.) As he gets to know her, he obviously learns she’s a person, too.
Is it good?
There are so many troublesome disconnects in Jojo Rabbit, and the “getting to know Elsa” aspect of the story is a big one. Jojo gradually learns that Elsa isn’t a monster, but he never does question why he was taught that she was, or who stands to gain from creating that rift between them. Their story stays shallow, surface-level, and sentimental, with most of the focus on Jojo’s coming-of-age story. His prepubescent crush on Elsa might be cuter if he didn’t have so much power over her, from navigating her ongoing survival to controlling the information she gets. When he writes her fake, self-serving letters, supposedly from her fiancé, it’s laughable because his jealousy and attempts to disrupt their relationship are so transparent and childish. But it’s also chilling, because even at age 10, he’s trying to control her love life and insert himself into it.
Jojo Rabbit has been compared to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, because of the childhood romance and the focus on an unconventional, comedically precocious scout camp. But the dynamic here isn’t nearly as precious: it’s a one-way romance in which a boy who isn’t entirely sure his crush object is human (or whether he sees her as a stand-in for his dead sister) fixates on a girl who’s thinking more about her family’s death than about the weird kid who keeps grilling her about whether Jews sleep hanging from ceilings, like bats. It’s mildly disappointing that Jojo only has two possible modes for interpreting Elsa: as a threat to be eliminated, or a girlfriend to be claimed.
It’s equally disappointing that the film is so much more interested in his perspective and experience than hers, even though she’s going through the much harder journey. Some of the film’s most compelling scenes come when Rosie and Elsa steal a moment or two for conversation when Jojo isn’t around. In those moments, the film seems more heartfelt than calculated.
But the focus is so firmly on Jojo because his Hitler fanboy-ism is absolutely the only thing separating Jojo Rabbit from other straight dramas that have mined this exact same emotional dynamic, like The Book Thief or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Waititi doesn’t get enough screen time as Hitler, who he plays as a slapsticky, over-the-top pile of insecurities. (When Jojo’s Nazi resolve is flagging, Hitler starts begging for a salute: “Heil me? Heil me? Heil me!”) He’s the thoroughly ridiculous element that makes the film into a fantasy, and his silly relationship with Jojo is more compelling than Jojo’s burgeoning affection for Elsa.
The sick humor about Elsa and Nazi propaganda does make for a lot of uncomfortable laughs, in part because it’s so discordant and unexpected, and because Jojo is so desperately ignorant. Early on, he demands, in all seriousness, that Elsa draw him a map to “where the Queen Jew lays her eggs.” And it’s also funny because Waititi’s signature brand of New Zealand humor is so utterly sincere and absurdist: when Elsa impatiently tells Jojo that no matter how he identifies with Nazis, he isn’t one, he responds, “Um, I’m massively into swastikas, which is a pretty good sign.”
Like Ricky Baker, the adolescent protagonist from Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Jojo imagines himself as dangerous and important because he identifies closely with more powerful people. (For Ricky, it’s Tupac Shakur and “skux life.”) And as in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, there are laughs in the gap between Jojo’s self-image and the reality, which has him as yet another Waititi signature character: an awkward outsider, trying to insert himself into a world that looks down on him. Jojo Rabbit could use more of that dynamic, and more of Waititi’s subversive voice and willingness to upend cinematic norms. His strengths as a director lie in his willingness and ability to do unfamiliar things, whether that’s bringing improv to the MCU or playing whiny comedy Hitler. Jojo Rabbit founders when it stops being weird and daring, and tries to be sweet and serious instead.
What should it be rated?
There’s a little comic violence and some eventual traumatic war action, but as war dramas go, it’s pretty tame in terms of on-screen trauma. The PG-13 it got from the MPAA seems right.
How can I actually watch it?
Jojo Rabbit will be in wide theatrical release on October 18th, 2019.