Based on a novel by Christine Luenen, the story takes place in 1945, as Hitler’s Reich is shriveling under the Allied advance. Somewhere in this vanishing Vaterland, 10-year-old Jojo Beltzer (Roman Griffin Davis) lives with his single mother (Scarlett Johansson). Jojo drinks deeply from the Nazi Kool-Aid: He dreams of joining Hitler’s personal guard and spreading the swastika all over the world. Jojo marches off to a Hitler Youth camp, where he can become an instrument of death.
Turns out, this particular camp falls somewhere between Hogan’s Heroes and Monty Python on the goofy scale. The Commandant is Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a preening doofus who swigs from a flask and occasionally keeps his one good eye on the kids. His bumbling underlings, Finkel (Alfie Allen) and Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson), only add to the atmosphere of blithering incompetence. Jojo is desperate to prove himself, but it turns out he doesn’t have the Reich stuff. He refuses to strangle a bunny rabbit, and earns the derisive nickname “Jojo Rabbit.” His only solace lies with an imaginary friend: A petulant incarnation of Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself).
Jojo’s Nazi melancholy turns even more sour when he discovers his mom is hiding a Jewish girl in a secret compartment of their home. Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) is a friend of Jojo’s late sister. Upon meeting her, Jojo is horrified. He’s heard the propaganda: Jews are horned monsters. They practice witchcraft and eat children. Jojo whips out a pen and paper, hoping to document her freakishness. He is chagrined when he can’t find fangs or a tail. She’s just a sweet, headstrong teenager. Their loneliness builds a bond between them, and she slowly thaws his frozen, fascist heart.
The comedy in Jojo Rabbit ranges from the sting of a rapier to the blunt force of a big rock. Rockwell plays it broad, bumbling about and billowing Nazi gibberish. It’s a brilliant riff on the stupidity of blind fanaticism. Elsa also uses humor to prove how idiotic stereotypes can be: She teases Jojo, building a narrative about Jews using mind control and living deep within the earth. He buys it, until he can see it’s clearly wrong. These moments are funny, but they also make a larger point on how ignorance inevitably melts under the white light of truth.
All the players in Jojo Rabbit turn in excellent performances. Davis effectively conveys the naiveté underneath Jojo’s Nazi facade. He’s really just a sweet, misguided little boy who wants to belong to something. Johansson does great work as the sturdy single mom who quietly acts her conscience. Rockwell steals his scenes, just like he does in most movies. Stephen Merchant cameos as a slithering Gestapo prick. Finally, Waititi’s imaginary Hitler borrows a bit of John Cleese’s buffoonery–further evidence of the Python vibe.
Jojo Rabbit mines humor from tragedy, and vice versa. Waititi switches the dial back and forth with deceptive ease. It tackles heavy subjects with a fearlessness you don’t find very often. People may be offended, but satires are provocative by their very nature. Look at some of the funniest people of the 20th Century: George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce. They made you laugh, but their humor could also knock you out of your groove. Make you think about it for days. That’s exactly what Jojo Rabbit does. This is one of the best films of the year.
108 min. PG-13.