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Waititi’s ‘Jojo Rabbit’ seeks humor in the darkest of places

‘Boldly, unabashedly quirky film’

This image released by Fox Searchlight Pictures shows (from left), Roman Griffin Davis and Taika Waititi in a scene from the WWII satirical film ‘Jojo Rabbit’. (AP)

 ‘Oh good,
another Hitler comedy! It’s been too long,’ said no studio development
executive, ever.

But of course, absurd as the idea
may seem, some attempts to wring humor from the horrors of Nazi Germany have
stood the test of time: Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”, Ernst
Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not To Be”, Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” and Roberto
Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful”, to name a few.

Now comes the boldly, unabashedly
quirky “Jojo Rabbit” by New Zealand director Taika Waititi, who attempts this
fiendishly difficult balancing act at a time when Nazi jokes seem even more
potent and dangerous than a few decades ago.

And that is precisely the point,
Waititi says: Now, especially now, is the time to remind younger generations of
what happened more than 70 years ago. And what better tool, as Brooks has
posited, than humor? That’s his argument, anyway.

Whether you agree or not – and
indeed, many may not – it helps to know where the director is coming from,
personally. He has spoken of experiencing prejudice as a child, and says he’s
always been interested in stories told through the eyes of children.

That’s exactly what he does in
“Jojo Rabbit”, which, though it features high-profile names like Scarlett
Johansson and Sam Rockwell, is anchored by a hugely sympathetic young actor,
Roman Griffin Davis, as a 10-year-old boy trying to be the very best Nazi he
can.

It’s hard to believe this is
young Roman’s film debut; he manages to exude both a youthful whimsy and a
sense of aplomb that belies his age. It’s also hard to imagine the film
succeeding without such a sensitive and winning performance at its core.

Radiant

We meet Jojo toward the end of
the war, in the fictional town of Falkenheim. (The film is based on the 2004
novel “Caging Skies”, by Christine Leunen.) He lives with his mother, Rosie
(Johansson), a spunky and radiant free spirit with, we will learn, a major
secret.

But really, Jojo lives with Adolf
Hitler.

Yes, Hitler’s his imaginary
friend, sort of his Nazi life coach, as the young boy prepares to don his
uniform and join the Jungvolk of the Hitler Youth, where youngsters are
indoctrinated into the cause. Hitler is played here by Waititi himself as more
of a benignly goofy, gangly misfit than, well, the real thing. (He says he
wasn’t his own first choice for the role; actors weren’t clamoring to be
Hitler.)

At training camp, Jojo’s
commander is the preposterously thickheaded Captain Klenzendorf (a predictably
amusing Rockwell, who knows from thickheaded characters), aided by his equally
misguided assistants, Finkel and Fraulein Rahm. The latter is played by Rebel
Wilson, as intentionally incongruous in a World War II film as you’d imagine.
“I’ve had 18 kids for Germany,” she declares to the young girls, who are
expected to do the same.

Jojo is ordered to demonstrate
his Nazi credentials by wringing the neck of a rabbit. He can’t bring himself
to kill the poor thing, and runs away into the forest, humiliated.

He tries to redeem himself, but
soon he’ll face an even more shocking challenge. Only this one’s name is Elsa,
and she’s young and beautiful. And he can’t find her horns, or any signs of
evil powers.

Jojo’s first instinct is to alert
the Nazis about Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, the lovely New Zealand actress who
recalls a young Nicole Kidman). But he soon realizes he and his mother would
likely be killed, too. And so he slowly gets to know her.

Where does the Queen lay her
eggs, he asks? Do you live in caves? Sometimes, she allows, “We hang from the
ceiling.” Gradually, the two become closer. Elsa tries to get Jojo to realize
he’s not really a Nazi – just a 10-year-old “who likes dressing up in a funny
uniform and wants to be part of a club.”

A tragedy late in the film will
severely test the deepening relationship between the two. But the war will
eventually end, with drastic implications for every character. “It’s definitely
not a good time to be a Nazi,” notes Jojo’s young buddy Yorki drily, as the
regime collapses around them. (AP)

Is it now, or ever, a good time
for a Nazi-themed comedy? That’s as difficult a question to answer as it ever
was. But Waititi injects enough heart and wit into this enterprise to make a
case that artists like him should at least be trying to find creative ways to
educate new generations about the horrors of the past.

“Jojo Rabbit”, a Fox Searchlight
release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for
mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language.”
Running time: 108 minutes. Three stars out of four. (AP)

By Jocelyn Noveck

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