MANILA — Movies about Nazi Germany are usually deadly serious, but here’s one film who decided to portray Nazi atrocities as a black comedy.
The audacious director who dared to do this feat is Taika Waititi, a New Zealander filmmaker who broke through to international fame after directing the hilarious “Thor: Ragnarok” in 2017. This time, Waititi adapted Christine Leunen’s best-selling novel “Caging Skies” himself and directed it to become one of the most critically-acclaimed films of 2019.
It was World War II in Nazi Germany. Johannes “Jojo” Betzler was a 10-year-old boy living with his mother, Rosie. His father was away fighting in the war somewhere, while his sister Inge died of influenza. To keep himself amused, Jojo had an imaginary friend — a foolish Adolf Hitler — from whom he asked advice. When Jojo balked at killing a rabbit at Capt. Klenzendorf’s Hitler Youth training camp, he was teased with the nickname “Jojo Rabbit.” He would later discover a dangerous secret her mother kept in a wall in their upstairs room.
Waititi pushed envelopes to write the notorious Hitler as such a stupid childish caricature on film, even if he was just a figment of a child’s active imagination here. And being the comedian that he was, Waititi even played this version of Hitler himself, toothbrush mustache, pot belly and all. To push the Nazi satire further, the whole Nazi Youth training camp scenario was also very comically envisioned and executed, with Sam Rockwell and Alfie Allen as the inept officers who run it. With Rebel Wilson playing a hefty fraulein instructor there, you can see how riotous that could be.
The boy Jojo was played by 12-year old child actor Roman Griffith Davis, in his very first film role. His role was complex with the ethical decisions which his character faced as a young boy, but Davis was able to play it delightfully light with wide-eyed innocence, as Waititi envisioned the role.
Scarlett Johannson played his mother Rosie, who wanted to instill in his fiercely loyal Nazi son a sense of compassion, to offer an antidote to his budding toxicity. Johansson earned an Oscar nomination for playing this supporting role (on top of her Best Actress nomination for “Marriage Story” — a rare double nomination).
As writer and director, Taika Waititi infused his wacky sense of humor into Leunen’s grim book. Making fun of Hitler and Nazi Germany is definitely not expected to be everybody’s cup of tea, but he went for it. Compared to the riotous gag in “The Producers” where Hitler was a very gay flamboyant dancer, Waititi’s version of Der Fuhrer was silly but still maintained some sinister in him. Waititi treated Jojo’s unexpected discovery about a certain girl (played by Thomasin McKenzie) with tenderness and sensitivity.
Tackling the relationships of Nazis and Jews in films is always a touchy subject. I guess Waititi, while trying to be edgy and funny about it, had still managed to tread that precarious line well enough to merit nominations of Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay from the usually conservative Academy.
This review was originally published in the author’s blog, “Fred Said.”
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