Bad ideas are in vogue, which makes Jojo Rabbit a candidate for this week’s zeitgeist movie. It’s a two-ton whimsy about Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten-year-old German cherub during World War II, so fascinated with Der Führer, the leader of his country’s ideals, that he envisions Adolf Hitler as his imaginary friend.
As played by Taika Waititi, Funny Adolf behaves childishly and runs alongside Jojo with gangly, clown-like gestures during an outing with Hitlerjugend troops. Although given to making angry-face speeches about Aryan superiority and silly anti-Jewish pronouncements, Funny Adolf represents Jojo’s ignorance of Third Reich ideology and his pre-adolescent hero-worship.
But don’t worry, writer-director Taika Waititi, best known for the Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok, hasn’t made Hitler a superhero on the right side of history; instead, Waititi’s calculated political correctness lampoons political idolatry as immature, low-information folly. Jojo Rabbit ought to expose the projection of fears and self-loathing that’s become the common feature of far-left ideology, but it avoids that realization and settles for being a zeitgeist satire that targets the political infatuation of others, not your own.
No wonder Jojo Rabbit won over award-season shills at the recent Toronto Film Festival, where it took the same audience prize as last year’s Green Book. Award-givers have become as obtuse as little Jojo in conflating political self-righteousness with artistic excellence. This foolishness recalls what Pauline Kael ridiculed as “Nazi junkie” movies; only now it happens with flicks about identity politics.
New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi follows trends through a third-rate sensibility; as in his breakthrough film Hunt for the Wilderpeople, he strives toward banal idiosyncrasy in Jojo Rabbit. Its Third Reich setting is presented in deliberately artificial, childlike context, although intended to appeal to adult sophistication. Each character is lovably idiosyncratic, from innocent Jojo, his freedom-loving mother (Scarlett Johansen), and his HJ commander (Sam Rockwell) to his roly-poly best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) and the teenage Jewish savant Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in a crawlspace inside the bedroom of Jojo’s late sister, like Anne Frank. They inhabit the brightly colored storybook compositions –Wes Anderson knockoffs, straining toward the eccentricity of Jared Hess figures.
Acclaim for Jojo Rabbit indicts our pathetic film culture that refused to acknowledge the ingenuity of Anderson and Hess’s best films (respectively The Darjeeling Limited and Gentlemen Broncos). Waititi’s simplistic view of human behavior and political history isn’t even as sophisticated as Indiana Jones’s witty cultural summation: “Nazis — I hate those guys!”
Jojo Rabbit blends the ahistorical idiocy of Tarantino’s WWII folly Inglourious Basterds with the far-left imperative to demonize through ridicule. (Nazis weren’t really funny in Mel Brooks’s The Producers, and they weren’t merely funny in Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.) Waititi’s gimmick evokes the recent “punch a Nazi” meme, a feature of the #Resistance following the 2016 election. Jojo eventually outgrows his childish identification with power and rejects his demented role model (“F*** off, Hitler!”), and the childishness of this predictable, crowd-pleasing moment confirms Waititi’s unsophisticated response to contemporary political idolatry.
Waititi makes warped populism cute. Jojo gets his titular nickname when he runs away from a Hitlerjugend dare to kill a fuzzy wabbit — ending with a grenade accident that leaves him cutely scared and with a Forrest Gump limp. His mother advises him to be shrewd and wily like a woodland creature, and his attraction to the Jewish Elsa helps contradict the anti-Jewish rhetoric he’s heard without being able to process.
Jojo Rabbit reduces Nazism to naïve modern Hollywood morality. Even Rockwell’s “sympathetic” Nazi is conveniently gay. When he pretends to repeat ethnic calumny and suggests that “someone should write a book on the subject,” the line is so poorly planted that it seems like another snarky reference (this time to Mein Kampf); it barely registers on Jojo, who fills a drawing pad with his kindergarten daydreams about Hitler, Jewry, and his own childhood.
This mélange symbolizes Waititi’s self-congratulatory project. His sentimental ploys lack the emotional purity of the boy’s tale in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s wondrous Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet, and the offensive use of David Bowie’s “Heroes” is worse than merely anachronistic. Somehow Waititi mongrelizes Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum and then fails the critique of idol-worship that made Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere — with its full-out correction of Mussolini’s impact on the romantic imagination of a subjected populace — a perfect allegory for Obama-era idolatry. Vincere is a major film that never became a great zeitgeist movie because its warning was out of step with “progress.” Jojo Rabbit is minor, but its zeitgeist appeal as childish political projection insults us all.