Can Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit Make You Laugh About Hitler?

Photo: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Film Corporation.
It’s impossible to talk about Jojo Rabbit without acknowledging the movie that made it possible in the first place. When Mel Brooks released The Producers in 1967, barely 23 years had passed since the end of World War II. A movie centered around a duo of slimey producers with Jewish names who try to con their investors by putting on a tasteless play about Hitler’s joyous home life was, to put it mildly, a risky move. Initial reviews for the film were fairly mixed, as critics grappled with the implications of making comedy out of one of history’s most tragic and brutal moments. 
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Still, the risky gamble paid off. Brooks won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1968, and Gene Wilder was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. It was adapted into a stage musical (which won 12 Tony Awards), which itself was re-adapted into a movie in 2005. In 1996, the Library of Congress deemed The Producers "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" enough for preservation as part of the National Film Registry. Today, The Producers has cemented its place as the standard-bearer for parodies about the Nazi regime. You can’t see a goofy fascist mustache without hearing the opening notes of “Springtime for Hitler.”
In many ways, Taika Waititi’s self-proclaimed “anti-hate satire” exists within the universe of The Producers’ fictional musical, Springtime for Hitler. Based on the 2004 novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, the film follows the travails of 10-year-old Johannes “Jojo “ Betzler (a cherubic Roman Griffin Davis, exceptional in his on-screen debut), a committed member of the Hitler Youth whose fanatic endorsement of the Nazi cause is put to the test when he realizes his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house. To make matters even more fraught, Jojo’s imaginary friend is none other than Adolf Hitler himself, parodied with zestful relish by Waititi. As Jojo gets to know Elsa, under the guise of using her as a source for his side project, a book about identifying Jews called “Yoo Hoo Jew,” his dogmatic views come into conflict with his increasingly heartfelt feelings. And with the war coming into its final stages, he must make a choice: Succumb to the hate he’s been taught, or fight for love. 
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That tension forms the guiding thread for the movie, which gets its name from a scene early on when a group of older boys challenge Jojo to prove his loyalty and resolve by throttling an adorable rabbit. He can’t bring himself to do it, and instead watches tearfully as they snap its neck, before running off into the woods. 
Despite the hype around Waititi’s portrayal of Hitler, Jojo Rabbit isn’t ultimately about him. Rather, it’s about the indoctrination of youth, and what it takes to undo the brainwashing once it takes hold. The use of a German cover of The Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand" in the opening credits sets the tone early on — authoritarian regimes rely on blind fanaticism. It’s easy to believe in something when the consequences are abstract. It’s another to keep on believing once you’re confronted with something that contradicts what you’ve been taught. 
That moment foreshadows a showdown with Elsa later in the film. “You’re not a Nazi Jojo,” she tells him. “You’re a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a fancy uniform and wants to be part of a club.” Unfortunately, for Jojo and his ilk, the realities of war don’t make exceptions for kids with overactive imaginations. 
Empathizing with a budding anti-Semite is a big ask of an audience, but Waititi mostly pulls off a difficult balancing act between fantasy and the much darker realities of living under an authoritarian dictatorship. Like Brooks, he constructs a whimsical version of the terrifying regime, with flourishes straight out of a Wes Anderson film. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare frames his shots in fairy-tale color. Jojo’s time at a Hitler Youth retreat, for example, turns into a playful campfire romp led by a chipper Rebel Wilson — with book burnings and grenades instead of s’mores and bug juice. 
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Scarlett Johansson sparkles as Jojo’s mother Rosie, whose chic Austrian hats and fanciful dances are a cover for the much more serious work she’s doing as an anti-war activist. As Captain Klenzendorf, Jojo’s Hitler Youth commander, Sam Rockwell gives the performance closest in tone to Springtime for Hitler, ending the movie in a bedazzled uniform complete with a red fringe cape, a pink-plumed helmet, and eyeliner. (Shoutout to his similarly clad assistant, played by Alfie Allen, holding a humongous phonograph to provide a custom soundtrack.) 
But the strength of Jojo Rabbit is that it doesn’t let us forget what’s at stake. It purposefully lulls us into the fantasy, only to pull the rug out from under us when we least expect it, as if to challenge our own complicity. How dare we go along with this rosy view of Nazi Germany? Even Waititi’s Hitler, so jovial — and to be completely honest, almost problematically endearing — in the beginning, reveals a rotten underbelly in the film’s final moments. Which brings me to the question that’s probably on everyone’s mind: Is Jojo Rabbit offensive?
The answer is entirely subjective. Just as Brooks’ own background as a Jewish veteran of World War II tempered the potential vitriol against The Producers, Waititi’s own Jewish heritage (on his mother’s side) certainly colors the way I interpreted certain jokes. Jojo’s obsession with writing an instruction manual about how to identify Jews hiding among Aryans would come off very differently had it been conceived by someone who didn’t identify as Jewish. Same goes for the many, many puns around the use of “Jew,” which, when used without the more palatable “ish,” has an aggressive and negative connotation. There will undoubtedly be those who see any kind of satire about Nazi Germany as a potentially dangerous distortion of facts. I see their point. The world is seeing a marked resurgence in anti-Semitic violence, and Holocaust denial — or in many cases, ignorance —  plays a central role in that. If this is the only movie most people ever see about Hitler, what will the takeaway be? 
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On the flip side, I’d argue that this movie, far from glossing over Nazi misdeeds, actually highlights them. McKenzie’s portrayal of Elsa is particularly effective in that respect. Underneath her tough exterior, she’s just a teenager who’s had to grow up much too quickly in a world that’s hell-bent on stamping her out. The fact that she’s able to feel compassion for Jojo — and he for her — indicates that Waititi ultimately wants this to be a hopeful portrayal of the human potential for good. (And if that doesn’t get the message across, the film’s cringe-worthy sub-title, “an anti-hate satire,” certainly does.)
That optimism doesn’t always work. Klenzendorf, for example, gets off a little too easily, as does Jojo himself. The fact is that many young people did not give up their hateful beliefs — a reality that led to the unprecedented carnage wrought by the Nazi regime. But overall, Jojo Rabbit stands as a creative, thought-provoking example of the power of childlike wonder in the face of terrible forces. It’s funny, poignant, and unfortunately, more relevant than ever. 
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