JoJo Rabbit begins with ‘Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand:’ The Beatles ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ sung in German, played over scenes out of the Richard Lester school of musical movie wackiness. There are montage antics, screens divided into multiple actions, and joyful exuberance straight out of A Hard Day’s Night. Since the drive home from the theater, the line from ‘London Calling’ about “phony Bealemania” has been running through my head. I think of the point director/writer/star Taika Waititi is making here is that kids are ready to be fanatics, true believers, embracing fads, belonging to The Group. Johannes Betzler is scrawny, sensitive, and lonely. We learn his big sister is dead and his father has disappeared into World War II for two years. In the Hitler Youth, JoJo will have a keen knife, a cool outfit, and plenty of playmates with whom to shoot and blow things up. A good Nazi, his imaginary playmate is Adolf himself, whose pictures adorn his walls like a pop star. Connection made for both JoJo and the audience.
As a kid, my first exposure to World War II was through the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. When I was old enough to learn about real Nazis in grade school, I was shocked and felt betrayed by this facile, whitewashed comedy. Stalag 13 was no laughing matter when I learned that there were death camps and real horrors happening just off screen from this goofy version of the war. How could they. Now I was wading in, eyes open and voluntarily to a modern attempt to find some humor in those days in JoJo Rabbit.
Taika Waititi is responsible for my favorite comedy series of last year, What We Do In The Shadows and the amazing movie that established that comedy world. I also dug the sublime Hunt For The Wilderpeople. I guess everyone else knows him for Ragnarok, but superheroes are not always high on my viewing list. So when I saw the trailer for Taika playing a Hitler Youth’s imaginary friend Adolf, I held my breath that he’d be able to cross that particularly treacherous highwire and take us along with him safely to the perch on the other side. The good news is that he mostly manages this dangerous feat.
Taiki Waititi, son of a Maoiri father and a mother of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, takes on the most difficult comedy reclamation task of modern times: using satire to defeat the Nazi monster. Mel Brooks achieved this in a way by reveling in the tastelessness of ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ the sure-fire stinker of a Broadway show at the center of 1967’s The Producers and the musical and movie of that musical that followed decades later. The humor works there because the sheer awfulness of making Hitler the subject of a light romp is the crux of the joke. There is the remove of an actor playing a Nazi, not actually being a Nazi that gives the audience a little more license to laugh. At the opposite end of the spectrum is The Day the Clown Cried, a sort of white whale of a buried dramatic work. Jerry Lewis, a decade before his dramatic turn for Scorcese in King of Comedy (and there is no way to read this without needing a Silkwood shower) plays a circus clown in a concentration camp who leads children to the gas chamber. This film is infamous for its bad taste as a failed attempt at profundity. So Taika had gales of film comedy history as well actual history blowing strong headwinds against him as he embarked on this work. Will his footing be secure?
We are brought into the madness of the war through JoJo’s POV. Kids’ unique view of war can be handled well on film. In particular, the 1987 movie Hope and Glory does a remarkable job at showing the wonder and beauty of the Blitz to a child, a nostalgic but unsentimental look at the London of the time. Kids are resilience machines, delicate and fragile certainly, but their minds and bodies can help them adapt to unthinkable conditions as nature propels them on their prime directive to grow, to thrive and to maximize any mental nutrient toward those ends. So that imperative weighed in favor of this project.
So, this film. Now comes sensitive ten-year old JoJo and his snaggle-toothed round boi bestie (non-imaginary category) Yorki, who throw themselves into the Hitler-Jugend. This is really the only organized activity for boys in 1945 Germany, and they are eager to belong and serve. A camp mishap sidelines him and leads JoJo to volunteer on his own for the local Nazis, putting up posters and delivering conscriptions, while Yorki continues on in the organized camp, getting armed as the war is drawing into its final months and the Reich is low on troops. I won’t recap and risk spoiling it, but the struggle to maintain humanity during a time of rampant dehumanization, to resist evil, and, ultimately, to find love are all major themes handled deftly. Taika Waititi is a great storyteller, revealing for us his characters’ inner lives in an unvarnished, not always flattering way.
Unlike The Producers, there is no play within a play and familiar comedy faces Sam Rockwell, Stephen Merchant, and Rebel Wilson are actual Nazis, no filter. Rockwell, the one-eyed youth camp commander, is complex in the role. He has a soft spot for JoJo and his mother Rosie (as well as for flamboyant battle wear). Taika does not push this to the “good people on both sides” facile point, but there are moments of light and tenderness in the dark horror of the Nazi machinery, but not to the point where Nazis are excused or resisters are diminished.
JoJo himself can be monstrous, as he decides to serve der Fuehrer by writing a book on the true nature of the Jewish people. In the attic, his mother has hidden Elsa, a young Jewish school girl who reminds her of her late daughter. Oh course JoJo discovers Elsa, and deciding what to do with her is his major moral dilemma. He begins by interviewing her to get the inside story for his anti-Semitic monograph; Elsa baits JoJo with outlandish stories about the nature of her people, fueling his spectacular, fanciful drawings. This relationship becomes the most important in the film; no spoilers.
The film uses anachronistic music cues, sometimes German language versions of well known songs. We hear Bowie as well as The Beatles in German, as well as Jack White’s Monkees-in-German cover of “I’m a Believer” that is all over the trailer. There is some Wagner, as would be expected when the Third Reich is on the march, There is also a Love track, ticking the cool-vintage-criminally-overlooked-genius box for art house film soundtracks. I think you’ll enjoy the Spotify playlist:
When mania and fanaticism take hold of a people, those whipped-up winds are not steerable. Taika used the money and clout of his Marvel Universe success to leap into this high-wind highwire crossing to tell a small scale story of how fervor impacts a single family through the eyes of a young boy. His humane, heart-felt comedy sensibilities humanizes monsters of a fictional origin (What We Do In the Shadows’ vampires) and of a very real kind (Nazis here). JoJo Rabbit has already won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF--I anticipate it will grow in regard over the years. This film worked for me. Still, be mindful this film is at its core a delicate balancing act, though, and not everyone will enjoy taking each precarious step with Taika. He does get you to the other side, so just don’t look down and follow him where the film leads. In the end: ta-da! Ultimately, the view is breathtaking.