It’s Springtime for Hitler, again.
It’s no mean feat to make a comedy about a boy who admires Adolf Hitler and give it bite and charm, but Taika Waititi does just this with this prickly but endearing spoof of nazism, very loosely based on Christine Leunens’s book Caging Skies.
The biggest joke may be that Waititi, a New Zealander who is a Maori Jew, of all things, plays Adolf himself, as he appears as a friendly father figure in the imagination of Jojo Betzler (the excellent Roman Griffin Davis). A more exotic führer we’ll never see. First I was afraid that he was going to make Adolf cute, but this sly little satire shows him as a callous and careless monster through the eyes of the kid that idolizes him.
The movie starts with real footage of the incomprehensible frenzy that horrid little man used to cause in the average German citizen, particularly the frauleins, who are seen screaming like teenyboppers to the tune of the Beatles’ I want to hold your hand in German. Cults of personality may be innocuous enough for pop bands but are lethal for society.
Little Jojo has caught this insane führer fever. His mother (Scarlett Johansson) sends him to a Hitler Youth summer camp, where a drunken and defeated Nazi captain, (the always welcome Sam Rockwell) teaches children how to lob grenades, and teenage nazi sadists expect the kids to shoot bunnies to death. Rebel Wilson plays a nazi who makes a bonfire by enthusiastically burning books. By then I knew we were in the safe hands of a responsible satirist.
The children balk at having to do murderous things that are clearly beyond the pale for their age or for anyone really, but Jojo is egged on by his imaginary friend and ends up with a ricocheted grenade exploding in his face. Waititi balances the funny with the monstrous with elegance. His humor is sweet, goofy, and barbed.
Jojo Rabbit is a coming of age story in which Jojo learns that his mom is a resister who is hiding a young Jewish neighbor (Thomasin McKenzie). Jojo is torn between the antisemitic drivel he has been hearing everywhere, and this beautiful and fierce girl living behind his walls — a Jew without horns!
As he has demonstrated with What We Do In The Shadows and Thor Ragnarok, as well as several episodes of Flight of The Conchords, Waititi is brilliant at his brand of sharp, sweet-natured humor. The movie has a lot of smart jokes as well as funny sight gags. The children are wonderful, in particular Jojo’s best friend Yorki, the delightful Archie Yates (I wanted him in every scene). The supporting cast, which includes Stephen Merchant as an ingratiating SS officer, is very game, and the movie is very funny yet tough. Bad stuff happens to Jojo and he has to learn the hard way to think for himself and get rid of useless and dangerous hatreds.
The only other people that have mastered this balance between difficult subject matter and comedy are Italian Neo-realists like Mario Monicelli and Luigi Comencini, whose movies make you laugh until they make you cry, sometimes at the same time. Waititi is their true heir.