A round of applause, please, for filmmaker Taika Waititi, for the courage he employs in his biting Nazi satire “Jojo Rabbit.” Not for making a comedy about Adolf Hitler but for daring, in an age when a president calls modern neo-Nazis “very fine people,” to remind us of the evil Hitler embodied.
Little Johannes Betzler, played winningly by newcomer Roman Griffin Davis, is eager to show the world how devoted he is to Der Fuhrer. As a new member of the Hitler Youth, 10-year-old Johannes, nicknamed Jojo, jumps into the knife drills set forth by his summer camp’s commander, the freakishly irresponsible Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). But Jojo loses his nerve when the teen campers order him to kill a rabbit, so the kids taunt him with a new name: Jojo Rabbit.
Seeking advice, Jojo turns to his imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler. Waititi plays Hitler as a goofy caricature, an overly confident buddy constructed from propaganda and shaped by a young boy’s limited worldview. It’s a smart, and weirdly funny, concept, and Waititi’s performance makes it work.
It works because Waititi lampoons Hitler without making him sympathetic. It’s a lesson he’s learned, no doubt, from other filmmakers who famously mocked Hitler: Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful,” Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” and the early 1940s cartoons of Walt Disney and Chuck Jones.
Jojo, through Klenzendorf’s incompetence and imaginary Adolf’s enthusiasm, almost gets killed at camp by a wayward grenade. A scarred Jojo comes home to his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), and he must find ways to entertain himself while Rosie works.
We get an early hint that Rosie’s politics aren’t as pro-Hitler as her son’s. When they see dissidents hanged in the city square, Jojo asks his mother what they did. “What they could,” she replies quietly.
Bouncing around the house alone, Jojo makes an important discovery: Mother is hiding a Jewish teen, Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie), in a crawlspace of their home.
From the opening credits — a commentary on fanaticism that juxtaposes Nazi newsreel footage with The Beatles’ German translation of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — Waititi shows he’s not going to deliver a stodgy World War II movie. His willingness to play loose with the timeline in his soundtrack choices is an early indicator that he’s after more than a dry history lesson.
Waititi — who, as director, injected offbeat humor into Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok” — adapts Christine Leunens’ novel into a witty dissection of authoritarian absurdity. There are odd, and oddly funny, grace notes, like Jojo’s regular reunions with his camp pal Yorki (Archie Yates), who seems to be moving up in the German army despite only being 11. There’s Klenzendorf’s suspiciously loyal aide, Finkel (Alfie Allen, from “Game of Thrones”), and his devoted secretary, Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). And there’s the Gestapo officer, played by Stephen Merchant, who looks like a villain from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” stretched like taffy.
By using Jojo’s innocence as a filter, Waititi briefly sets aside the brutality of Nazism to scorn the inherent silliness of dictatorships, the way they make smart people twist themselves into knots to keep up with the small-minded fellow at the top. But Waititi doesn’t ignore the brutality, and when it comes back into view as Jojo confronts the horrors of Hitler’s rule, the effect is shattering.
Davis, in his first movie, carries that weight well for a little kid. He’s nicely matched by Johansson, who has never been better, and Mackenzie, who is heartbreaking as a girl who must become invisible to survive.
“Jojo Rabbit” will have its detractors, and there’s a worthy discussion to be had about how comedy can highlight the evils of the world or laugh them off. Waititi takes the old line that “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes,” and suggests that sometimes history is a profane limerick.
A boy relies on his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, to make sense of life in 1945 Germany in this bravely absurdist satire.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City), Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy)
When • Opens Friday, Nov. 1
Rated • PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language.
Running time • 108 minutes