Making Nazis funny but unsympathetic is ‘Jojo Rabbit’s’ key to success

From left, Roman Griffin Davis, as Jojo; Taikai Waititi as Adolf Hitler; and Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother Rosie on the set of “Jojo Rabbit.” Waititi also wrote and directed the film (Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

Taika Waititi’s newest movie, “Jojo Rabbit,” has the same plot as “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”: a young and naïve boy living in Nazi Germany learns the truth about war and learns to overcome his prejudices when he makes friends with a Jew. But that’s where the similarities end.

Whereas Bruno, the protagonist of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” is ignorant to an almost comical extent, the protagonist of “Jojo Rabbit,” Johanne “Jojo” Betzler, is fanatical in his loyalty to the Nazi regime.

He’s a 10-year-old who cannot even tie his own shoes or is able to harm a rabbit (earning him the nickname Jojo Rabbit). To him, the Jews the Nazis talk about are monsters who hide in the closet at night, Hitler Youth is a fun scouting club where you get to play with weapons and Adolf Hitler is just his goofy, mischievous imaginary friend.

Everything changes when Jojo finds that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa behind a panel in his dead bedroom. The revelation turns Jojo’s world on its head and he’s slowly forced to question his beliefs as his bond with Elsa grows.

The movie faced some controversy when it was first announced. People thought that the “Thor: Ragnarok” director’s movie was inappropriate. Nazis shouldn’t be comic relief, the criticism went, or sympathetic. But the film treats the subject with the right balance of levity and respect.

Genocide is never trivialized and the Nazis are still an obvious threat, while still remaining comedic and showing just how ridiculous propaganda to children are.

The Nazis themselves are blatantly terrible and inept; they greet every individual with a “Heil Hitler,” stretching a normal greeting out into an awkward social norm, and don’t seem to recognize what can go wrong with letting a pre-pubescent child go into a battle with a grenade launcher that weighs more than himself.

Their fanaticism is frightening, but their incompetence is just…hilarious.

I think Mel Brooks was right when he said, “If you can bring these people down with comedy, they stand no chance.” Unlike its counterpart, “Jojo Rabbit” never puts any of the Nazis in a sympathetic role where they only recognize what they’re doing is wrong once it affects them.

And as Elsa point out: Jojo isn’t a Nazi. He’s just a kid. Even if he is “massively into swastika” as he claims to Elsa.

And throughout the film, as Jojo develops as a character, imaginary Hitler appears less often and becomes increasingly unhinged.

Waititi, who is a Polynesian Jew, is absolutely brilliant in his role as imaginary Hitler. At the beginning, he is somehow hammy, paternal and childish, and later becomes frightening and manic. And it works better because he isn’t really Hitler. He’s a child’s imaginary friend.

You can’t really be frightened of Hitler wearing an old-timey one piece swimsuit.

He definitely has the best lines; he refers to Elsa as a “female, Jewish Jesse Owens” several times, in a rapid fire manner and upon finding her, thinks they should burn down the family home and “blame Winston Churchill.”

That’s comedy gold right there.

Roman Griffin Davis, who plays Jojo, is brilliant in his role of a little boy trying to act more mature than he actually is. He’s able to go from endearing to frightening in the span of a few minutes, while remaining sympathetic.

He carries a lot of this film himself and is forced through the gamut of human emotions. He is a little child being taught to hate and he doesn’t even realize it. Why would he? He’s never given a chance to think differently until his time with Elsa.

Roman has an excellent rapport with Thomasin McKenzie, who plays Elsa as a solemn teenager, trying to survive.

And thankfully, “Jojo Rabbit,” avoids one of my least favorite tropes, where a teenage girl is treated as a viable love interest for a prepubescent boy and where she humors his crush. The relationship between Jojo and Elsa is much more that of siblings. She enjoys messing with him, feeding him false information about Jews that he gobbles up, but it’s evident she cares for his well-being.

She’s never idealized or just put as a helpless victim reliant on the help of a few kind souls. She has a personality; she has hopes, hobbies and dreams. She’s not just there to teach Jojo a lesson. She exists as a character in her own right.

And while the film leans toward the saccharine at times, it never acts as those happy moments can make up for the horrors of war.

Sometimes we need a happy ending. And “Jojo Rabbit’s” bittersweet final scene, set to a German-version of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” is certainly earned.

If you’re looking for a World War II film that doesn’t depict all Jewish victims as helpless, or whose job it is to reform Nazis, this is the movie for you. And if you’re a fan of great cinematography and awesome soundtracks, then you should definitely see it.

“Jojo Rabbit,” directed and written by Taika Waititi, is now playing in theaters around the Washington Metro area.

Length: 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language)

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Twitter: @SamScoopCooper

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