Jojo Rabbit

 

            Is it possible to make a semi-serious, but humorous parody of Nazis?  Yes, if it's handled just right.  And Director/Writer Taika Waititi wields a distinctly deft touch.

            Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a ten-year-old boy who's recruited for Hitler's Youth Camp, at a time when the Third Reich is already reeling on the battlefield.  Jojo is so gung-ho that in his 10-year-old mind, Adolph Hitler personally appears to him to encourage him.  This little boy's version of Hitler is not the fiery demagogue or the cruel oppressor, but instead the chatty, avuncular, non-confrontational type.  Like a favorite uncle, except in an ill-fitting uniform.

            Jojo's actual experience with the Youth Camp is less than heartening.  They try to get him to act tough and be tough, but Jojo is sweet at heart, even though he wants so badly to fit in.  They try to get him to kill a rabbit by twisting its neck, pretending it's a despicable Jew, but Jojo can't do it.  He just runs.  And they call after him, “Jojo Rabbit!”, which isn't exactly a complimentary nickname.  And the irony is that Jojo's mother, Rosie, happens to be hiding a Jew in their attic.

            Rosie, you see, is a clandestine Communist.  She tells her little boy that his father is off at war, which is not exactly a lie, but he's not fighting for the Nazis, either.  Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) thinks the war effort is futile, but she doesn't want to discourage Jojo in his naive enthusiasm.  She does, however, try to keep Jojo from meeting Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), the girl in the attic.  She's just a teenager who's been shunted around different hiding places until she ended up in Rosie's attic.  There's not much to eat, and there's not much privacy, but at least she's safe.  For now.

            If Mr. Waititi dances a fine line playing Adolph while Directing, he asks Sam Rockwell, as Captain Klenzendorf, to walk a similar fine line.  The Captain is obviously war-weary, maybe even shell-shocked into PTSD, but he's put in charge of this Youth Camp, and he's going to take it as seriously as he can while showing up drunk and dishevelled.  Rebel Wilson, as Fraulein Rahm, adds to the tongue-in-cheek irony by being the sweet lady who hands out hand grenades.

            Even with the heavy explosions at the end, it still feels like a set, so the drama maintains an air of unreality.  The solemn alternates with the slapstick, but somehow we manage to squeeze out a plot that signals the end of the War, and with it the end of Adolph's grip on the psyche of the country.  Yes, it's obvious the Jews are persecuted, but we don't have to take the emotional beating of trying to sit through “Schindler's List.”  Yes, Jojo gets disillusioned with the Aryan posturing and endures his own tragedies, but still manages to retain some boyish charm.

            Yes, it's an odd duck of a film, that may or may not resonate with older audiences.  But it might be a clever way for young people to be reminded of some of the grisly lessons while still being entertained.  If so, then the whole unique satirical lampoon is well worth the caricatured effort.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association