As “Jojo Rabbit” begins, a nervous little boy named Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) tries to psych himself up for the first day of camp. His imaginary friend reassures him that he’s strong, smart and capable. The scene is charming and highly relatable — or it would be, if the child weren’t wearing Hitler Youth regalia, and if his imaginary friend weren’t “Der Führer,” played by the movie’s Jewish-Maori director Taika Waititi, himself.
Set in the waning months of the Third Reich, the movie follows Jojo as he tries his best to be a brave little Nazi, even though his kind heart makes it hard for him to hate Jews as virulently as his elders expect. Jojo’s troubles multiply when he discovers his mother is working with the Resistance and that she’s been hiding a Jewish teenager, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in their attic. As he gets to know Elsa, Jojo starts questioning the advice of his best buddy, Adolf Hitler.
When “Jojo Rabbit” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, it won the People’s Choice Award, a prize that last year went to the Best Picture Oscar-winner “Green Book,” and which in years past has gone to the likes of “La La Land,” “12 Years a Slave” and “The King’s Speech.” The critics’ reaction was more divided. The most persistent knock against the film is that its writer-director Waititi — adapting Christine Leunens’s 2008 novel “Caging Skies” — has pumped too much whimsy and cuteness into a story about ruthless Nazis and persecuted Jews. But if anything, “Jojo Rabbit” is part of a rich pop culture tradition of “funny Hitlers.” And the movie illustrates why these depictions, and a seemingly light takes on menacing dictators in general, can be so valuable.
There have been countless Hitler spoofs. The Warner Bros. and Walt Disney animation departments mocked Adolf Hitler mercilessly during World War II. Mel Brooks skewered the idea that Nazi conquest of Europe was too serious to joke about in his 1967 movie, “The Producers,” wherein a couple of down-on-their-luck impresarios have a surprise hit with the musical “Springtime for Hitler.” The list of goofy Nazis in movies, TV shows, songs, books, plays and cartoons is long and varied.
Of all these predecessors, “Jojo Rabbit” has the most in common with Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 classic “The Great Dictator.” Chaplin tackled Hitler before the United States had entered the war, in a story about a capricious despot named Adenoid Hynkel and a Jewish barber who looks just like him. (Chaplin plays both.) The movie criticizes bigotry and abuses of power. But it’s also about how decent, ordinary people have to keep loving and helping each other, even while being governed by a madman. Chaplin was both suggesting it was easy to ridicule Hitler and offering a blueprint for how to survive him.
“Jojo Rabbit” isn’t a direct commentary on the world of 2019 — or at least not in the same way that “The Great Dictator” warned 1940 audiences about what was happening in Europe. But Waititi hasn’t exactly made a period piece either. His characters speak in a modern vernacular. His soundtrack is peppered with ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll. Waititi also plays up the irony of Nazis lamenting their imminent extinction, unaware that their iconography and ideology will stubbornly persist into the 21st century.
In an interview with the critic Bilge Ebiri for Vulture, Waititi spoke about why he tried to make “Jojo Rabbit” feel less bound to the mid-’40s. Speaking of Hitler and the Nazi Party, the director said, “If we treat it like something that happened 80 years ago and we keep it in that historical box, then we assume it can never happen again.”
So “Jojo Rabbit” is a crowd-pleaser with a cautionary bent, transporting audiences to a time and place when Nazism was the norm, with the intention of sending a few chills up the spine in between all the wry jokes and broad slapstick. The agents of the German state are petty and ignorant. They’re also everywhere and seemingly inescapable.
That said, the dopey qualities in Waititi’s portrayal of Hitler — along with the narrow-minded officiousness of the movie’s Nazis — also serves to demystify evil a bit. The threat the bad guys pose in “Jojo Rabbit” is dangerously real. But they’re not superhuman. As Mel Brooks clarified decades ago, it’s OK to laugh at them.
More than anything, like “The Great Dictator,” “Jojo Rabbit” is a reminder that turbulent times pass; that human compassion endures; that the voices rattling around in our heads don’t always know what they’re talking about; and that even little boys who lose their way can return to their best instincts.