By KYLE KERSEY
In Martin Luther King Jr.’s “A Stride toward Freedom,” he describes the spread of hatred: “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they do not know each other; they do not know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.” This theory of hatred was central to the Nazi ideology; the separation and extermination of Jewish people, people unfairly demonized as unethical monsters at the root of Germany’s socio-economic problems post World War I.
To make a wacky comedy about such a topic is bold. To make it funny is impressive. To make it profound is laudable.
Following a fanatical German youth named Jojo being raised by his compassionate mother (Scarlett Johansson) in the waning days of World War II, “Jojo Rabbit” confronts this theme head on. Jojo is just like most Nazi Youth’s: indoctrinated with a fanaticism for fascism and the misinformed hatred of Jews that comes with it. Despite the best efforts of his mother to reach the innocence inside him, Jojo remains steadfast in his loyalty to the fuhrer. However, that all begins to change when he discovers a Jewish girl named Elsa living in his attic who seems less like a mythical monster and more like … well … him.
Through the eyes of a ten year old, the world of Nazi Germany is ridiculous (in truth, so was the ideology). His small town is vibrant and brightly colored – a setting fit for a Wes Anderson movie – but brought back to reality with the gallows that loom at the center of town. When Rebel Wilson’s Hitler Youth camp counselor joyously exclaims “it’s time to burn some books!” the children cheer in unison. And then go burn some books. When a Gestapo Agent (Stephen Merchant) sees Jojo’s Nazi-themed bedroom, he remarks “I wish more of our young boys had your blind fanaticism.” Despite being in the final days of a losing war, the only authority to display any cynicism is Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a one eyed war veteran who would much rather be fighting on the front lines than running a Hitler Youth camp.
Early on, Jojo shows himself to be a very caring kid. When he’s told to kill a rabbit at the camp to prove he can do what it takes to be a true Nazi, he attempts to let it run free. While resting in a tent, Jojo tells his friend Yorki (Archie Yates) that Hitler is his real best friend, though Yorki proves himself to be a more lovable companion.
Jojo’s imaginary best friend is an idealized, childish Adolf Hitler, portrayed by director Taika Waititi (remember “Thor: Ragnarok” and then go see “What We Do In The Shadows”), of half Jewish ancestry himself, which leads to an easy Mel Brooks comparison. Brooks was well known for his farcical portrayal of Nazism throughout his filmography, directly lampooning the third reich in “The Producers” and indirectly parodying it in “Spaceballs” (which of course is a direct parody of “Star Wars,” which borrows its own villain imagery from Nazism). Hitler was a conscious target of his comedy, a man Brooks rightly held in unmistakable contempt due to his targeted genocide of the jewish people during the Holocaust – Brooks’ own people. And he constantly pointed out the absurdities of the Nazi regime in his work; from their ideology to their propaganda campaigns.
Waititi follows in these footsteps. There are jokes that mirror the quickness and silliness of Brooks’ flicks or classic parodies like “Airplane” – one in particular found the whole theater burst out in laughter. But it’s the relationship between Jojo and his imaginary Hitler that I found most interesting. It starts off friendly; he encourages Jojo to be strong and believe in himself. He’s like a goofy and lovable child, sharing zero personality traits with the real-life German dictator; a kid’s way of coping with an absent father and the pre-movie death of his sister. These are events that, in a traditional drama, would be explored with grave seriousness but, Jojo is far too young to truly understand the cruel and evil world around him, let alone grapple with mortality and fascist ideology. The real truth about it is Jojo’s fanaticism with Nazism isn’t a political belief; more like a boy’s fanaticism for their dad’s favorite football team. So we’re left exploring its silliness for the first half of the film.
Waititi understands that powerful satire requires a precise target, not just “hate is bad.”. For Brooks in “The Producers,” it was the absurdity of Nazi propaganda and the supposed superiority they attempted to project on to the rest of the world. For Waititi, it’s the root of hatred and its relationship with tribalism. Like Dr. King’s words articulate, Jojo’s hate of Elsa is irrational, born out of misconceptions and fears of her being some sort of monster rather than a person just like him.
Jojo’s relationship with his imaginary Hitler takes a nasty turn with the introduction of Elsa. Later on, he chastises Jojo for treating Elsa with compassion before sternly declaring “You’re ten, Jojo, start acting like it.” He morphs from an encouraging child-like buddy to a pushy ideologue demanding absolute obedience to something even more sinister. It’s truly wonderful to watch Jojo begin to see his ingrained racism and fascism for what it really is: evil and scary.
Inevitably, there comes the question as to whether or not “Jojo Rabbit” is too light-hearted for a film depicting the government that carried out the Holocaust. Indeed, the word is never said, nor are any of the horrifying atrocities brought up with any sort of detail. But Waititi does depict the dehumanization of Jewish people through Elsa, as well as the suffering and despair that it causes. Her relationship with Jojo is the emotional backbone of the whole movie.
There’s a great moment where the mood suddenly shifts from goofy to profound, where Jojo suddenly begins to understand the gravity of his situation. I won’t spoil it here, but it stuck with me long after I left the theater. It cemented “Jojo Rabbit” as more than a madcap comedy. It’s a movie that effectively mixes in moments of humor, melancholy, and beauty; a movie that juxtaposes both the heartwarming and heartbreaking; a movie that is well worth your time.