Not that long ago, stories about the Second World War were a staple in literature, movies, and television.
This is hardly surprising; it was a monumental event in world history, so of course it was going to take a long time to process. Narratives about it, both fictional and true, saturated the popular culture for decades.
Since the century turned, the global upheavals of a new millennium have inevitably overshadowed those of the generation that came before, and narratives about the war have become fewer and further between.
That doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared; something about that particular conflict continues to call out to us from the past, and Taika Waititi’s latest effort, “Jojo Rabbit” – a black comedy hitting theaters on October 18 – just might get to the heart of not only why we still feel the need to cast our gaze back upon it, but of why, more than 70 years later, it’s still important for us to do so.
In its advertising, his film has taken pains to ensure that audiences know going in they will be seeing an “anti-hate satire.” It’s a savvy decision, given current sensitivity around the subject matter, but the description doesn’t quite live up to the sophisticated comedic exercise the New Zealand filmmaker delivers.
Set in a German town near the end of WWII, it focuses on 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a lonely misfit of a little boy who zealously embraces the Nazi ideal; his father is away at the front, and his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is frequently absent, leaving him to spend most of his time in the sole company of his imaginary friend – none other than an idealized version of his idol, Hitler himself (Waititi). His youthful contentment is shaken one day when he goes upstairs to investigate a noise in his empty house and discovers that his beloved mother is hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie). Confronted with this revelation, he is forced to reexamine his beliefs even as the lie of Hitler’s Germany begins to crumble in the world outside.
Based on the book “Caging Skies,” by Christine Leunens, Waititi’s screenplay for “Jojo Rabbit” charges forward with his now-familiar irreverent humor and gives us no time to be shocked that he’s giving us a comedy about Nazi Germany. It’s likely to be a little distasteful for some audiences, but it’s not exactly a first; many filmmakers have made fun of Hitler, from Charlie Chaplin to Mel Brooks. Waititi, though, goes into riskier territory, mining for laughs within the atrocities of daily life under a mad, authoritarian regime. Few filmmakers have dared such an effort – for instance, Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” which polarized critics in 1997 with its heart-tugging, tragicomic vision of existence in a concentration camp, and to which “Jojo Rabbit” has already been compared – and it has rarely gone well.
Waititi, though, seems little concerned with perceived taboos about what constitutes fair game for humor. He’s playing the iconoclast here just as boldly as when he successfully transformed Marvel’s “Thor” franchise from pompous pseudo-myth to raucous buddy comedy in 2017’s “Ragnorok,” and he aims to win you over through sheer audacity. He willfully pushes the tone of his movie into the realm of the absurd, even the surreal – at times, it almost feels like a Terry Gilliam film – because he knows it is there where humor and horror meet. Nothing drives home the inherent absurdity of the most appalling human endeavors like finding yourself laughing in its face. There’s a kind of epiphany that can take place in that moment, a perspective from which one recognizes the deeply truthful human element in the mix; Waititi is gambling that he can take you to that threshhold, and – for the most part – he succeeds.
Part of the reason has to do with his talent; his disarming quirkiness and inventive visual storytelling, coupled with top-notch performances from a cast that seems fully committed to his vision, goes a long way toward making it work.
What elevates his film to the level of true cinema, though, is that he shows us this absurdity through the eyes of a child who accepts without question the racism and rhetoric of a demagogue. His understanding of what it all means – underscored by the buffoonish, childlike vision of Hitler he imagines – is unsophisticated and uneducated, because he’s only a boy, after all, but when we see it reflected in the adult characters around him, blindly following orders and clinging to the illusions in which they have so deeply invested themselves, it’s more difficult to reconcile the obvious gap between their humanity and their choices. What manner of mental hoops must these adults have had to jump through in order to maintain their childish trust in authority, and what encounters with other ways of thinking have they had to dismiss, devalue or ignore?
It’s because of this contrast that “Jojo Rabbit” can present us with characters that would be villains in almost any other film – people like Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a career soldier relegated to babysitting the local Hitler Youth Camp, or Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson), a dim-witted cog in the wheels of Nazi bureaucracy, or even Captain Deertz (Stephen Merchant), a Gestapo thug tasked with searching out Jews that have still eluded capture – and ask us not only to laugh but to feel a degree of empathy for them, too.
It’s easy enough to judge them, but Waititi isn’t interested in passing judgments; instead, he wants us to read between the lines, to see the complexities of which his young protagonist is blissfully ignorant, and to understand how normal people can become part of a horrible machine. It’s in the character of Klenzendorf – whose sense of bemused irony, not to mention the liberal sprinkling of implied queerness in his relationship with his second-in-command, Finkel (“Game of Thrones” actor Alfie Allen), hints at a tragically deep level of self-awareness – that we are allowed to get the clearest glimpse of the suppressed humanity required to enable such a system.
Of course, once Jojo finds himself making personal connections to someone on the other side of the ideological divide, he begins to question the assumptions that have made him a true believer. We must assume, likewise, that some or all of the adults around him have been confronted at some point by the disconnect between what they have been instructed to believe and what their personal lives have shown them. For them, whatever doubts may have sprung from their experiences, it is too late for change; Jojo might still be able to walk away, changed by a lesson that has cost him everything he once held dear, but they are caught in the juggernaut they have helped to create through their unthinking obedience, and they are left scrambling to preserve whatever sense of dignity and meaning they can as they wait for their inevitable fate.
Considering that his film comes into a world enmeshed, once more, in a Nationalist fervor that feels uncomfortably similar to the one in the Nazi Germany he portrays, it’s impossible not to recognize the message – and the warning – this deceptively jocular filmmaker is trying to deliver.