The history of cinema is rife with examples of films that lampoon Nazism. You could even go so far as to say the ugly reign of the Third Reich was the format’s first tangible enemy, the first world-consuming evil that faced what was at the time a young, experimental, and angry medium. The eagerness to use film as a means to criticize Hitler’s regime was so palpable it even convinced one of cinema’s first truly international stars, Charlie Chaplin, to put aside his aversion to sound films and make a Nazi-satire of his own: The Great Dictator.
Combining aesthetics of his classic Tramp character with innovations he had long avoided, Chaplin crafted a resonant, commercially successful film in a country not yet at war with Germany. By all means, he proved the value and viability of using film satire to speak truth to power. Two decades later, Chaplin wrote in his autobiography that if he had known the reality of the Holocaust, he never would have made the film. In admitting this, he brought up a valid moral question that continues to face filmmakers today: if we’re poking fun at the depths of human depravity, are we minimizing the terrible impact those actions inflicted upon others? Taika Waititi doesn’t seem to think the question has an easy answer.
The beloved New Zealand writer-director-actor’s newest film, Jojo Rabbit, has garnered equal parts praise and ridicule since its initial announcement. Its premise is potentially disastrous and tone-deaf: in the waning days of the war, a young, eager Hitler youth named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) faces challenges to his ideology when he discovers his sweet, rebellious mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is sheltering Jewish orphan Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). The twist? His imaginary friend is a caricature of Hitler himself, played by typically cheeky Waititi (a Maori Jew himself). Enter Waititi’s signature brand of twee fun, except this time it’s channeled through the most repulsive man to ever walk the earth.
It’s hard not to be wary of Waititi’s premise, which he’s repurposed from a novel by Christine Leunens called Caging Skies. With real-world fascism alive and well, the timing couldn’t seem worse for the Chaplin question to come roaring back to life again, especially when a style as cute as Waititi’s is involved. Why reduce Nazis, especially its leader, to bumbling idiots when they’re rediscovering footholds in posing a genuine threat to marginalized people? He never seems to know himself, but he does surprisingly manage to strike a balance between his warring tones to craft a messy but moving exploration of how far-right extremism lures in outsiders.
The key to Jojo Rabbit is its child actors, who imbue the film with a sweet charm that not only entertains but makes the film’s perhaps surprisingly darker moments hit harder. Davis is a marvelous discovery on Waititi’s part, a plucky actor who brings to life Jojo’s twisted ideology without making him detestable. It’s a tricky role, one that requires an actor capable of charming the audience while making it clear that the character’s precarious social ideas are not borne entirely out of evil but out of confusion and self-doubt. He pulls it off effortlessly, forming Jojo into a sympathetic character that imbues the horror of how fascism has a cruel knack for convincing loners that its the gospel. The only person who outshines him is McKenzie, who matches the all-time greatness of her breakout role in last year’s Leave No Trace with a commanding, heartbreaking performance as Elsa. McKenzie ensures Elsa never falls into the trap of becoming a girl-in-the-attic trope, gifting her with a resolute nature that’s nevertheless undercut by a rightfully bitter, deep-cutting sense of sadness and loss. It’s one of the best performances of the year, the kind of transcendent work that only amplifies the film’s strengths and buries its weaknesses.
In that department, there’s plenty to speak of despite the solid performances at the film’s center. The adult actors are solid but aren’t nearly as interesting as the children, with the exception being Johannsson. She gives a deeply human, complex performance matched only by her work in fellow London Film Festival headliner Marriage Story. The downside of that is it highlights how asleep her adult co-stars are, particularly Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson, who are merely going through the motions of playing roles they’ve played before (how many more cheaply redeemed Nazis is Rockwell going to play before we deem it a problem?) Waititi’s insistence on forcing humor, while often funny in a vacuum, frequently upstages the actually intelligent work he’s doing in the more dramatic aspects of the script. The Hitler role provides some admittedly big laughs, but it feels like more of a bug than a feature, showing up sporadically and without any real purpose in the film’s larger story. It wears out its welcome quickly, especially as the film ventures deeper and deeper into darker territory.
In the darkness is where Waititi surprisingly thrives, overshadowing his trademark humor with moving, often shocking dramatic work that is not nearly as gutless as some of the film’s marketing has made it out to be. He proves himself willing to subvert your expectations and take risks, whether it’s an earth-shattering twist or a hair-raising sequence featuring Jojo and Elsa squaring off with a ruthless Gestapo member (Stephen Merchant). There’s flashes of a truly masterful film here, one free of Waititi’s penchant for easy gags and imbued with a deeper sense of philosophical purpose that he’s clearly striving for. If he had made that less funny but much better film then perhaps the Chaplin question could have been momentarily laid to rest. For now, we’re left wondering with what could have been, and what it means to live in a world where we still have to worry about our children being ensnared by Nazism in the first place.