Springtime for Hitler, Germany and Jojo: Taika Waititi’s quirky coming-of-age comedy opens at FilmScene

Thomasin McKenzie, Roman Griffin Davis and Taika Waititi in ‘Jojo Rabbit.’ — film still

Nazis are bad, right? Right. Taika Waititi assumes you already understand this if you’re sitting down to watch his latest film, Jojo Rabbit.

If you know anything about this movie, it’s that it’s about a kid who has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend. Maybe you even heard that it’s directed by the Thor: Ragnarok guy. Oh, and it’s divisive as hell. Kind of inevitable, right, when you focus your tragicomedy on Nazis — even if you slap the tagline “An Anti-Hate Satire” on the poster?

Before I get too in the weeds, let’s set the scene a little better.

Jojo Rabbit, written and directed by Waititi and now playing at FilmScene–The Chauncey, follows 10-year-old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), an enthusiastic Hitler Youth inductee who powers through moments of self-doubt by consulting his imaginary hype-man, Adolf Hitler (Waititi). While Jojo’s bumbling Nazi camp counselors dole out lessons on the sinister machinations of the Jews and how to mercilessly kill a rabbit (which Jojo refuses to do, earning him the mocking moniker “Jojo Rabbit”), Jojo’s single mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is harboring a secret — specifically, a teenage Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie).

When Jojo discovers Elsa hidden in their attic, he’s left to try and reconcile his Hitler Youth-imposed Weltanschauung with his loyalty to his mother and growing empathy for his new housemate.

The film has three distinct acts, each appealing to a different kind of movie-goer. The first is for fans of absurdism and Wes Anderson, with twee summer-camp imagery acting as a veneer over the dark realities of fascist indoctrination of children. In the second act, Jojo’s fantastical Adolf fades into the background a bit, making room to explore the complex but unconditional love between the young Nazi and his anti-Nazi mother, as well as Elsa. The third act feels more like the World War II films we’re used to, combining action, tragedy, triumph and coming-of-age.

There is a wealth of reviews both praising and decrying Waititi’s take on history, and elements of both these schools of thought ring true to me. My inclination is that Jojo Rabbit didn’t need to exist, that its message is not as urgent as one might think it’d be (or hoped it’d be), despite the rising tide of fascism, anti-Semitism and white nationalism around the world. But the qualities that make it nonessential also make it rather benign, oddly light entertainment.

There are few words more universally provocative than “Nazi” and “Hitler,” so I can understand why World War II is a tempting well to go to when trying to make a broad, edgy statement. In truth, there’s nothing shocking or revelatory about Jojo Rabbit. It struts and frets its two hours upon the screen and amounts to little more than a lesson on choosing love over hate and not taking freedom for granted. Good stuff, but hardly the type of savory social commentary we need from today’s foremost comedians.

Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis in ‘Jojo Rabbit.’ — film still

We’ve seen stupid Nazis (The Producers comes to mind), and we’ve seen embodiment-of-evil Nazis (Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List still makes my skin crawl). Which is the more biting condemnation of Nazism? Need artists even bother denouncing Nazis? Does laughing at dictators and genocidaires strip them of power, or trivialize the suffering they caused? How can one explore the human failings that allow authoritarians to take control of whole systems and populations without humanizing those humans to the point of seeming to forgive or excuse them?

Is Jojo Rabbit too nuanced, or not nearly nuanced enough? At the risk of copping out, I’d say both. At the end of the day, this is a story about a boy growing up, told from his point of view. World War II and the Holocaust are merely dramatic (like, hyperbolically dramatic) backdrops. Jojo is a Hitler fanboy because he’s coming up in 1940s Germany; in another place or time, he might be obsessed with WWE or Pewdiepie or evangelical Christianity. It’s not even that Nazism is bad, per say, (again, Waititi assumes you already know this) but that Jojo has let it consume his identity and warp his worldview.

“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo,” Elsa tells him. “You’re a 10-year-old kid who likes swastikas and likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be a part of a club. But you are not one of them.”

More than anything, your tolerance for this film is likely determined by how creative or tasteless you find Waititi’s use of a cartoonish Nazi Germany — populated by jaded, queer-coded and half-blind Hitler Youth instructor Sam Rockwell and machine gun-toting Rebel Wilson — as a backdrop for his coming-of-age dramedy.

All that said, Jojo Rabbit was a fun time at the theater, full of the kind of whimsy and weirdness that tends to either beguile audiences or evoke eye-rolls. (I, for one, love Moonrise Kingdom, probably the closest spiritual cousin to Waititi’s film). There’s something quite satisfying about watching a man of Jewish and Māori heritage play Hitler as a raving, self-important loser (even if it is just a child’s conception of him), like seeing The Producers’ flamboyant Roger De Bris star in Springtime for Hitler, or the ragtag and totally fictional band of Jewish-American soldiers in Inglourious Basterds fill the Führer’s skull with lead.

Taika Waititi wrote, directed and portrayed an imaginary Adolf Hitler in 2019’s ‘Jojo Rabbit.’ — film still

Roman Griffin Davis makes for a likable lad, and, despite Scarlett Johannson’s best attempts to win problematic-celebrity bingo, I couldn’t help but enjoy her turn as Jojo’s strong, mischievous, wine-guzzling and freedom-fighting mother. Thomasin McKenzie, a revelation in 2018’s Leave No Trace, is wonderful. And Waititi gets some more mileage out of the German accent he affects in What We Do in the Shadows (literally one of my favorite movies of all time, so yes, I’m a bit biased in Waititi’s favor) and doesn’t try to steal the show from the stronger actors and characters onscreen. There’s at least one truly poignant scene, a handful of laugh-out-loud moments and, bonus, the film passes the Bechdel test.

Jojo Rabbit is far from my favorite Waititi film both in terms of comedy and pathos, but it is well worth a view. It won the coveted People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, and FilmScene Programming Director Rebecca Fons foresees it winning the Oscar for Best Picture next year. So, at the very least, it’s worth seeing what all the fuss is about.

Check the FilmScene website for showtimes.

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