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.
Until, that is, he meets one of them. It turns out that her lack of party spirit isn’t the only thing his mother is hiding: She’s also keeping Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a teenage Jewish girl, in the crawlspace of their house. After a lot of bad advice from his imaginary adviser Adolf, Jojo decides that it’s okay to befriend her, and their relationship gradually weans him away from the poison of his Nazi aspirations. But meanwhile the war’s endgame converts absurdity into tragedy, for the boys conscripted to the fatherland’s defense and the bumbling officers in charge of them — and even for some of the resisters, whose time and luck run out before the Russians get there.
If that paragraph doesn’t sound like it’s quite describing a comedy, then congratulations, you’ve hit on one of the problems with Jojo Rabbit. It wants to have its jokes at Nazidom’s expense, to portray Hitler as a mincing idiot and his ideology as something only a ten-year-old could possibly believe, but ultimately ends up with a pious message about the power of hatred and the power of intimacy to overcome it. “An anti-hate satire” runs the tagline on the movie’s posters, but the satire inevitably gets weaker as the anti-hate message gets stronger, until what began as a truly gonzo exercise finishes up resembling a competent Miramax drama from 20 years ago — The Girl in the Wall (1998), nominated for three Oscars, script rewritten by Harvey Weinstein, etc.
This result illustrates a plausible rule for any filmmaker intent on mocking Nazis: The closer you get to the Holocaust, the more your efforts at satire will be swallowed up. There’s a reason that Hogan’s Heroes was set in a POW camp, not in Buchenwald. There’s a reason that the funniest Nazi send-ups are so often sketches, bits, and memes: The endless re-dubbed Downfall videos, the “Are we the baddies?” sketch featuring SS men on the Eastern Front, the play-within-a-play of The Producers. Satire dies under Arbeit macht frei as surely as comedy falters at the gates of hell; the devil can be satirized in pieces but the reality of damnation is a different matter.
In the end Jojo Rabbit finds the sour spot. Its portrait of a boy’s redemption is far too glib to help us understand damnation, but it gets too close to the provinces of hell to justify its strong dose of froth and camp and silliness. The seriousness ultimately unravels the comedy, and then the unseriousness of that seriousness means the movie unravels itself.
This article appears as “The Pitfalls of Nazi Humor” in the December 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.