Parodying Hitler is nothing new. Charlie Chaplin played him in The Great Dictator (1940), long before Look Who’s Back (2015), Inglourious Basterds (2009), Mein Führer: The Really Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler (2007), and the countless memes that subtitled Hitler’s bunker tirade in Downfall (2004). Before the U.S. had entered WWII, mocking Hitler for two hours of cinema was considered something edgy and provocative, not unlike 2014’s satire of Kim Jong-un, The Interview, which prompted a cyber attack against Sony and threats directly from North Korea. Films like JoJo Rabbit (2019) exist in a far safer environment, where danger only lurks by the fringes of political correctness. However, as a millennial from the age of irreverent comedy and memes, I didn’t blink twice when I saw the trailer for Taika Waititi’s latest feature, an over-the-top satire of Nazism.
The film opens on “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a sensitive, 10-year-old German who frequently gets advice and encouragement from his imaginary friend, a silly, man-child version of Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Hitler’s bad ideas and cowardice make their relationship oddly reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes, but with fascist and racist undertones. JoJo is sent to Hitler’s Youth Camp, run by the gruff, closeted-gay Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who delivers military training in the anachronistic style of a boy scout summer camp. While trying to prove himself to the others, JoJo throws a grenade, which bounces back off a tree and blows him off his feet. JoJo is wounded and sent back home with subtle, Hollywood-style, facial scars and begins work as a Nazi courier for Captain Klenzendorf, who was also sent back for allowing the accident.
In their hometown, JoJo’s mother, Rosie (Scarlet Johansson), offsets JoJo’s self-seriousness with charming, playful antics in the hopes that her son will act more like a child than a Nazi. However, when JoJo discovers a teenage, Jewish girl, Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), hiding in their walls, his militaristic indoctrination takes effect and he begins a cold war with her. As Elsa and JoJo fight and play tricks on each other, their relationship begins to resemble that between siblings, with Elsa filling in for JoJo’s dead sister. As their bond deepens, JoJo begins to question his deeply instilled Nazi patriotism and comes into conflict with his imaginary Hitler friend. The story intensifies as the SS Police come searching for Jews and the war nears its end.
JoJo Rabbit is a comedy that dances on the surface of tragedy and occasionally dips into serious drama. While the tonal shifts generally work, certain moments invoke confusion rather than laughter or emotion. One example is the scene where actual footage of crowds celebrating Hitler’s parade from the documentary Triumph of the Will (1935) is overlaid with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” by the Beatles. The historic footage is an unsettling reminder of the real-life, ordinary people who supported Hitler, but the pop-rock music suggests that this sequence is some kind of joke and sounds too upbeat to be ironic.
While the comedic scenes are clearly defined, very few of them are actually funny. Despite Hitler making goofy faces and the Nazis espousing ridiculous propaganda, the humor too often fails, partially because characters are acting silly for the sake of being silly and partially because the humor doesn’t go far enough. It should be over-the-top, but the Nazis themselves were so over-the-top in their ideologies, practices, and systems that nothing in this film feels shocking. If grenade throwing and book burning were summer camp activities for kids in some modern-day comedy with Will Ferrell, it might be funny. But when it’s in Hitler’s Youth Camp in 1945, I just think, “This isn’t far off. What else would I expect to see Nazis doing?” The joke is as thin as the line between the film’s fantasy and the reality of the Nazis.
The story fares better with its drama. JoJo and Elsa’s mutual antagonism resembles something of the classic sibling fights between annoying little brothers and moody teenage sisters, mixed in with the complexity of racism, indoctrination, quasi-romantic tension, and the wounds of their haunted pasts.
While these themes aren’t groundbreaking, the film does succeed in exploring a less-talked-about tragedy of Nazism: the governmental indoctrination of children to turn them against their parents. When the film begins, JoJo’s own mother has already lost the fight for her son’s loyalty, and can’t even trust him enough to share the secrets of what she does during the day. Their relationship grows strained as JoJo tries to fill the void of his father’s absence with his imaginary version of Hitler and his Nazi leaders, who encourage him to be the man of the house.
While it’s easy to dismiss comparisons of Hitler’s Youth Camps to modern-day education as insane and paranoid, this is a relevant issue that the film raises: the 20th-century idea of children being raised by their peers and a government system in an environment that parents don’t have direct control over. The fear that sons and daughters will turn away from the values and beliefs of their parents isn’t just a character trait of conservatives — it’s a valid concern for anyone who believes in objective truth, morality, and meaning, and for anyone who cares what direction the world heads after they’re gone.
For directors like Charlie Chaplin, challenging the status quo and making a statement was an essential part of leaving a legacy. And, while the relative uniqueness of JoJo Rabbit’s vision gives it a memorable selling point, this film’s legacy will be dampened by its hit-or-miss humor, frequent tonal shifts surrounding sensitive subject matter, and thematically safe decisions. It is not likely to be remembered like The Great Dictator or Dr. Strangelove (1964), but may stick in the minds of many as a sweet film — one that values childhood innocence and puts a hefty price on the cost of parenting.