There’s a very fine line between successfully mining Hitler and Nazi Germany for laughs and distasteful “jokes” that land with an ignominious splat. Director Taika Waititi navigates that treacherous tightrope perfectly in , his bittersweet new dramedy based on the novel, , by Christine Leunens. The film will definitely make you laugh, but be forewarned: it may also break your heart.
Waititi’s film defies easy categorization. Let’s just call it an absurdist dramedy. It’s being touted as a satire, and the marketing has emphasized the humorous elements, but the WWII setting also calls to mind darker fare like Quentin Tarantino’s (2009). Several critics have compared it to the Oscar-winning 1997 Italian film, , directed by and starring Roberto Benigni as a Jewish father shielding his son from the horrors of a WWII concentration camp by pretending it’s all an elaborate game.
falls somewhere in between. It has more warmth and heart than the former and more of a savage edge than the latter. And while Waititi cites Terrence Malick’s (1973) and the 1988 black comedy as influences, tonally, also owes quite a lot to Waititi’s charming 2016 film, .
(Some minor spoilers below, but no major twists are revealed.)
The film opens with ten-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) excitedly getting ready for his first Hitler Youth camp, with encouragement from his imaginary BFF, Adolf Hitler (Waititi). Waititi has said that Imaginary Hitler is essentially a substitute for the boy’s absent father, who went off to fight in the war and has been incommunicado for some time. The camp is run by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), assisted by Frenkel (Alfie Allen) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). The eager children practice “war games,” gas mask drills, basic combat, and of course, blowing things up. But when Jojo can’t bring himself to kill a rabbit to prove his mettle, he is taunted for his cowardice and nicknamed “Rabbit.”
Jojo is a True Believer, inasmuch as a ten-year-old can be, accepting without question the Nazi propaganda and camp gossip about Jewish people (as in, they have horns and can read each other’s minds). So he is shocked to discover that his own mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), has been harboring a pretty teenaged Jewish refugee named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Elsa is the first Jewish person Jojo has ever met, and their interactions gradually force the boy to confront his flawed assumptions and beliefs. This threatens to drive a wedge between Jojo and Imaginary Hitler, who is none too pleased at the turn of events.
The cast is terrific, notably Rockwell’s boozy Captain Katzenberg, an acerbic, disillusioned officer of staggering incompetence who somehow finds himself in charge of a Hitler Youth camp, with predictably disastrous results. Stephen Merchant’s Gestapo agent, Captain Deertz, is equal parts goofy and menacing during an impromptu search of the Betzler home. Needless to say, he is favorably impressed with all the Nazi paraphernalia in Jojo’s bedroom: “I wish more of our young boys had your blind fanaticism.”
Waititi is hilariously over the top as Imaginary Hitler, delivering the occasional scathing zinger. (When Jojo ponders what to do about Elsa, he offers, “Let’s burn down the house and blame Winston Churchill.” Jojo opts for negotiation.) Johansson provides a perfect foil to all the antics as Rosie, who knows the real Jojo is still there somewhere under the Nazi uniform. But the biggest accolades should go to eleven-year-old Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo, who brings just the right combination of puffed-up bravado and wide-eyed vulnerability to the role.
The first act is light-hearted and genuinely funny, but there are occasional jarring darker moments. Then comes Jojo’s discovery of Elsa. She revels at first in scaring the young boy with tall tales about the Jews to feed his fevered imagination. But his curiosity is greater than his fear, and he keeps coming back to see her, until gradually the antagonists start to become friends. And just when you think you know where the story is going, Waititi delivers a punch to the gut so unexpected, it elicited audible gasps from the audience at my screening.
“Just when you think you know where the story is going, Waititi delivers a punch to the gut.”
won’t be to everyone’s taste, even for those who generally like Waititi’s quirkily irreverent style. Cultural context does matter, as does personal experience, and we are living in a particularly troubling period of rising authoritarian rhetoric, white supremacy, and virulent anti-immigration sentiment. (Humanity has a tendency to forget the harsh lessons of its own history.) There are plenty of people who will never find anything remotely amusing about Nazi Germany, no matter how skillful the execution. But I’m reminded of something Mel Brooks told the Atlantic last year, when asked about the controversy surrounding his Oscar-winning 1967 film . (For the uninitiated, it features a show-stopping parody song, “Springtime for Hitler.”) “The way you bring down Hitler… you don’t get on a soapbox with him… but if you can reduce him to something laughable, you win,” Brooks said.
That’s excellent advice, but I think Waititi is doing something a bit different here. This is not about poking fun at Hitler and Nazi Germany, although there are plenty of zingers at their expense. The WWII setting mostly provides a powerful framework for the story of a precocious, lonely boy in a war-torn country who desperately misses his father. “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club,” Elsa tells him at one point.
Jojo faces terrible, fearful things on a daily basis—things no ten-year-old should ever have to endure. I loved how Waititi handled those aspects, telling his story entirely from Jojo’s perspective. This is definitely a case where leaving something to the imagination greatly enhances the emotional impact. There is violence but very little explicit gore. All the very real horrors are filtered through a child’s eyes, so the camera simply cuts away or crops the shot when bad things happen.
Above all, Jojo is resilient. He perseveres, even as the war closes in on his hometown, and that ultimately makes us root for him. Waititi chose a telling epigraph for his film—a quotation from Rainier Maria Rilke’s poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing”:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.