Magazine | December 09, 2019, Issue

Jojo Rabbit and the Pitfalls of Nazi Humor

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (Twentieth Century Fox)

One small but reliable way to amaze someone steeped in our own culture of problematics with a dispatch from the not-so-distant past: Tell them that in the late 1960s, one of the most successful sitcoms in America was a broad farce set in a Nazi prison camp. If you want to compound the amazement, you might add that the actor playing the Nazi commandant was Werner Klemperer, a first cousin of Victor Klemperer, he of the famous Nazi-era diaries. Also, the actor who played the camp’s French POW, Corporal LeBeau, was not only Jewish but a survivor of Buchenwald, where as a twelve-year-old deportee he had escaped death by doing a song-and-dance act for SS men.

The Klemperer and Buchenwald connections, I will admit, were unknown to me until I set out to refresh my memory about the epic strangeness of Hogan’s Heroes — a refreshment inspired by watching Jojo Rabbit, a peculiar and polarizing movie that won a big audience award at the Toronto Film Festival and is being marketed as a love-trumps-hate dark horse to Academy Award voters looking for a passion project. If you want to understand the challenge of that marketing campaign, the memory of Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz is a useful place to start, since making a slapstick farce about a Hitler-worshiping ten-year-old surrounded by idiotic Nazis in the waning days of World War II is at least as strange as giving Nazi prison guards the sitcom treatment — and quite possibly a bit stranger.

The director of this odd entertainment is the part-Maori, part-Jewish Taika Waititi, whose name has come up a lot recently in cinephile debates because he made the candy-colored treat Thor: Ragnarok, which is by general consensus the movie that you’re supposed to reference if you’re defending the virtues of the Marvel Universe against that snob Martin Scorsese. “Okay, Goodfellas dude, but what about Thor: Ragnarok? Wasn’t that art?” Well, it wasn’t, really, but it was entertaining and deservedly successful, and riding that success, Waititi has seized his opportunity not only to make the Nazi comedy of his dreams, but to cast himself — as one does — as Adolf Hitler.

Not the real Führer, to be clear, but an imaginary-friend version, who hangs out with young Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), supplying encouragement and pratfalls as the boy struggles to make it in the local division of the Hitler Youth. Jojo’s father is either a POW or a deserter somewhere in Italy, and he’s alone with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who barely hides her contempt for National Socialism. But her ten-year-old is a wide-eyed true believer, desperate to win the approval of the older boys, eager to impress Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a war veteran demoted to a glorified scoutmaster position, and fully prepared to believe the most absurd, grotesque, horns-and-tails stories about Jews.