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Once in a director’s career, if they’re lucky, capitalism and creativity converge for the chance to make a film as wonderfully strange as Jojo Rabbit. In 2017, writer-director Taika Waititi, after making independent films for years in his native New Zealand, breathed new life into the superhero genre with the hilariously funny Thor: Ragnarok. Suddenly, he had the artistic and financial freedom to do anything he wanted. The success of Ragnarok was an improbable feat, but he was just getting started. For his next trick, Waititi will attempt the impossible: a Holocaust comedy.
In the last days of the Third Reich, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a precocious 10-year-old who roots for the Nazis the way a kid today might root for the Nats. He just really loves the uniforms. He spends his days at a Nazi youth camp, where he learns basic skills like how to identify Jews and the proper form for throwing hand grenades. At home, he faithfully practices his Nazi salute and dreams about befriending Hitler. He even conjures an imaginary version of Hitler (played by Waititi himself), who encourages Jojo’s anti-Semitic fantasies and pouts like a scorned lover every time the kid starts to think for himself.
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Things change for Jojo when he discovers Elsa (Thomasin MacKenzie), a Jewish teenager who his radical mother (Scarlett Johansson) has hidden in their attic. Although the propaganda he has internalized initially constrains him, Jojo soon lets down his guard, and his hatred gives way to a détente. He agrees to keep Elsa’s location a secret if she will answer his questions about Jewish people. The boy’s shallow bigotry quickly begins to erode under the scrutiny. The fact that Elsa is a pretty girl sure doesn’t hurt.
The film hews closely to the child’s perspective, using candy-colored set design and jaunty pop music to signal a world in which youthful naiveté obscures harsh realities. In this world, a Nazi camp is a gleeful romp in the forest, and the nonsensical Jewish stereotypes Jojo has faithfully memorized—that Jews smell like cabbage, for example—generate laughs in their absurdity. In lesser hands, of course, this would all be a disaster, but Waititi lets us live entirely in Jojo’s world, without lecturing the audience on the atrocities occurring just outside the frame.
The degree of difficulty is so high that, even when the film falters, you appreciate the effort. The clearest misstep is Waititi’s performance in front of the camera. The filmmaker surely got a kick out of casting himself as Hitler, but his broad, mugging performance feels cheap, when set against the film’s otherwise elegant complexity. Giving Jojo an imaginary friend was likely a hedge, in case a child actor capable of conveying his interiority couldn’t be found, but the young Davis, who gives a brilliant lead performance, renders it unnecessary. In the furrows of his brow and widening eyes, he captures the profound confusion of a premature adolescent, and he earns our sympathies.
Still, it’s a confection that may be too sugary for some viewers, and there will surely be others who chafe at any sympathetic portrayal of Nazis. These responses are reasonable, but they may miss the point. Humor can be a powerful weapon against hatred, and Jojo Rabbit is a master class in how it works.
Jojo Rabbit opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row.