Ten-year-old Johannes Betzler, the title character of Jojo Rabbit (played by young actor Roman Griffin Davis), generally does what is expected of him as a Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany during World War II. He camps out with the other boys, listens attentively to the disjointed pronouncements of the group leader Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), and, above all, admires his official Hitlerjugend dagger, the gateway weapon for all future soldiers.
But one day when he is ordered to kill a rabbit with his bare hands as a demonstration of the ferocity and obedience demanded by the Führer, Johannes can’t bring himself to do it. He is immediately branded a weakling, banished to the fringes of the group, and given the nickname “Jojo Rabbit,” to remind everyone of his cowardice. This disgrace reflects badly with everyone but Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), a resistance-minded woman with no love for the Nazi regime.
That’s the setup for filmmaker Taika Waititi’s surprisingly sweet satire, which takes an alternative route from most other modern-day war movies by putting us into the mind of a kid who doesn’t want to be a killer like all the rest. In Waititi’s vision – adapted from the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens – everything Jojo experiences conspires against the Third Reich horror, especially his imaginary best friend: Hitler himself, portrayed as a goofy, childlike spirit guide by director Waititi. And so a gentle boy and his active-resister mother on the German home front rebel against fascism with the encouragement of a fantasy Hitler, portrayed by a half-Jewish, half-Maori filmmaker from New Zealand. That sounds about right for a 2019 anti-Nazi movie.
Of course, no other subject in popular screen entertainment is quite so gravely serious as the Hitler-Nazi-WWII-Holocaust vortex, with good reason. But the stories never stop coming, and for the most part they’re unrelievedly grim. Which is why the few films that take humorous liberties with that time and place can offer courageous comic relief while staying on subject. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator springs immediately to mind, as does Mel Brooks’ The Producers, alongside numerous vintage Warner Bros. cartoons, à la Herr Meets Hare (Bugs Bunny vs. Hermann Goering) and, for fans of Wagner-kitsch, What’s Opera, Doc? (1957), with a cross-dressing Bugs running rings around Aryan nerd Elmer Fudd. In director Dani Levy’s German-made farce My Führer (2007), Hitler is lampooned as a hopeless neurotic who needs a Jewish coach to prepare for a wartime speech. Relax. It’s okay to make fun of Nazis.
No such overt laugh cues in Waititi’s Jojo, although Rockwell’s shell-shocked captain, some blundering Gestapo goons, and Waititi’s mincing, prancing Hitler come perilously close to burlesque. “Perilously,” because Jojo Rabbit does not shy away from the harsh realities of wartime Germany, where civilians are hanged in the public square for disloyalty and Frau Betzler hides a young Jewish woman in her home, without telling her dagger-carrying junior-Nazi son – that crime carries an instant death penalty.
Actor-director Waititi -- he made the Maori-themed Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople as well as the superheroic Thor: Ragnarok – puts on quite a show as Jojo’s loony, entirely harmless imaginary confidant, the idea being that, in our preteen hero’s mind, even the scariest monsters are rendered toothless and silly. The acting prize, however, goes to Johansson as Rosie, the calm, rational, lonely voice of reason, raging quietly against the machine. Rockwell, always the go-to interpreter of bent authority figures (Vice; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), carries his character over the top with joyous abandon. And Thomasin McKenzie (sensational as Ben Foster’s daughter in Leave No Trace) provides the functional ethos of the movie as Elsa, who shows her new friend Jojo another way of looking at the world.
That leaves sad-faced child actor Davis as the key character, He Who Must Be Saved, the one who will grow up amid the rubble and eventually throw away his uniform. Jojo is the intended receiver of the lines by poet Erich Maria Rilke: “Let everything happen to you/Beauty and terror/Just keep going/No feeling is final.” Jojo Rabbit, the sweetest, most nonsensical movie about one of the most horrific realities of human history, is something to take to bed with you at night. Just keep going.