“Jojo Rabbit” is a spectacular case of emotional whiplash. It can turn from ridiculously sad to sardonically funny in the span of a single cut. Making fun of Adolf Hitler has been a time-honored tradition since he rose to power, with satire ranging from Charlie Chaplin’s’ “The Great Dictator” (1940) to recent comic portrayals in movies like Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and David Wnent’s “Look Who’s Back” (2015). Making a mockery of political figures in order to rob them of their coveted power is a classic tactic—even if it is used only momentarily, parody soothes the national consciousness with comedy while contemporary and future constituents seek (hopefully) better models of governance.
The character of goofy Hitler serves this purpose, but he also somehow fits better within the narrative of “Jojo Rabbit” than any of the aforementioned films. The film’s version of Hitler acts like a child because he is the imaginary product of the titular Jojo. This allows Taika Waititi to depict Hitler and the SS as inane, in the same way that pointless rules in a child’s game must be intensely adhered to under any circumstances. The regime had a certain image to uphold, requiring some ridiculous rules. Not to make light of a serious issue, but the infantile Fuhrer calls to mind stories of Nazi uniforms being notoriously uncomfortable, complicated to wear and difficult to manufacture, all because the regime had to maintain a decor of dignity. Another example would be the Nazis’ excessive etiquette, whereby all officers entering a room would have to greet all members of the party with an individual “Heil Hitler.” Thus, Waititi’s argument is an old one: War, with all its preoccupations with proper order and wasteful showmanship (not to mention the simultaneous obliviousness towards the people it affects), is ultimately pointless.
There’s a nicely fleshed out theme of duplicitous appearances that plays out in unexpected ways. Besides the typical Jewish-passing-as-Nazi trope, this film focuses on the Hitler Youth. It is also about the work needed to keep up the façade of greatness in a disintegrating country… the lies we tell our children to shield them from the truth, even when it means they might become blind followers… JoJo’s mother’s juggling of both parental roles… German covers of Beatles and David Bowie playing in the background… and finally, Hitler being played by a Polynesian Jew, Waititi himself.
While the likes of Churchill and Mussolini sit in rooms smoking fat cigars, drinking whiskey and moving pieces around on their war board games, the likes of Jojo sit in Hitler Youth camps believing lies. Of course, Jojo is fascinated with the Nazis for reasons that are not genuinely ideological, despite his adorably horrific anti-Semitic rants. He simply loves the glamour of his little Boy Scout jacket, the pretense of responsibility, the charade of machismo—he’s into Nazism for the look. Can you blame him? He’s merely 10 years old. And therein lies the smarting quality of “Jojo Rabbit,” that pain comes about from having to draw a lineage of blame, a lineage that resists being marked with absolute certainty. After all, when we find ourselves sympathizing for ostensibly contemptible people, straightforward culpability is difficult to designate. Everyone from Jojo to high-ranking officials are vulnerable to the seduction of war.
Maybe the film isn’t risky enough with concluding that “war is complicated”, but somehow, that’s okay. The worst part of the film may be an occasionally unfunny line delivered by Rebel Wilson’s character, or the too-slick production look (something that is likely due to Waititi’s origins as a commercial director). Yet, the rest of Waititi’s wacky direction is more than enough to make “Jojo Rabbit” stand out from the average movie theater lineup, and there’s a really fine needle being threaded here. By the end of the film, the audience can unironically sympathize with a Nazi captain, and as if that isn’t hard enough to pull off, it’s a 50- 50 shot whether you’ll be crying or laughing by that point. I did both.