Some people are going to hate Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit like they haven’t hated anything since Life is Beautiful, and understandably some will argue Nazis are never funny under any circumstances; no matter what ridiculous figures they cut with their rites, their idiot prejudices and their too-cool, Hugo Boss uniforms. Mel Brooks, whom Nazis shot at at the Battle of the Bulge, was always certain they were comedy gold. Even in these nervous times, can’t we accept Brooks’ judgement?
Jojo Rabbit is the diary of a Nazi wimpy-kid trying to fit in with the usual social absurdities; it’s just that the Reich heightened the absurdities. In a small village in 1944, young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) tries to be a good little Hitler Youth member. But he’s a thorough reject, drawing a portion of the scorn doled out by the Jugend’s scoutmaster, an invalided-out Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). Jojo tents out at Jugend camp with his equally beta-male pal (Archie Yates), laying awake telling scary stories about Jews: “I hear they smell like brussel sprouts.” Recreations include a campfire of burning books—Jojo shows a little hint of reluctance before he tosses in a volume and joins in the fun.
Then comes a test of manhood: to kill a bunny rabbit with his bare hands in front of his fellow Jugenders. He fails. Dejected, he’s visited by his imaginary pal Der Fuhrer (Waititi in contact lenses and shaky mustache) whose advice to Jojo is to BE the rabbit—faster than anyone. He races forth to be the vanguard in a race, snatches a potato-masher hand grenade from a bigger boy and tosses it. It bounces off a tree and blows up in his face.
Now with his face stitched up with scars, he’s an even bigger reject to everyone but his mom Rosie, a very relaxed and appealing Scarlett Johansson, with a buttery Marlene Dietrich accent. The convalescing Jojo learns there’s another woman on the premise. Mom is secretly Anne-Franking young Elsa, a friend of the family, in the attic. Elsa corners simple Jojo and schools him on the Jews: do they hang upside like bats when they sleep? Can they read each others’ minds? As Elsa, Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) is consistently unsentimental and un-self-pitying.
Both Elsa and Rosie’s amused solicitude with this backward, fatherless kid is charming.
Moreover, they set up a border between the realm of the preposterously macho Nazis and the far more mysterious and interesting world of women. As in John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, all the comfort and intelligence is on one side and all the pain and stupidity is on the other. To add some yang to this yin, there is a female Nazi, Frauline Rahmi; Rebel Wilson plays this platinum-blonde Brunhilda working with Klenzendorf. She birthed more than a dozen babies for the Reich and Wilson suggests, with her posture, that she can’t sit comfortably after all that parturition.
This uproariously satirical version of a quite-serious novel might be modeled on Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol (1948) in the looming staircases and the expressionism of the boy’s world collapsing around him. Like Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, it’s certainly something you could take a smart, older child to see. Aspects are reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut, both Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night. Jojo Rabbit’s elegant, if sometimes episodic, comedy is as Blaise Pascal described life; the last act is bloody, no matter how pleasant the play has been. There’s no comfortable way out of this tale—the rocky last 15 minutes will give Jojo Rabbit’s haters ammo. Still, maybe nothing was as funny about the Nazis as their scurrying, ignominious end.