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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Jojo Rabbit’: When weakness is strength

Dan Webster

Critics across the U.S., including the city of Spokane, are debating the worth of New Zealand-born filmmaker Taika Waititi's offbeat comedy "Jojo Rabbit." In the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I try to explain my own reaction:

It’s not as if we’ve never seen comic depictions of Nazis in movies. Charlie Chaplin satirized the former Supreme Nazi leader of Germany in his 1940 film “The Great Dictator.” Mel Brooks made Nazis the focal point of his 1967 film “The Producers.”

And they drifted in and out of the popular television show “Hogan’s Heroes,” which ended its six-year run in 1971.

There’s something about evil that accentuates reactions, either dramatic – Steven Sielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List,” for example – or comedic, as Chaplin, Brooks and now Taita Waititi’s film “Jojo Rabbit” demonstrate.

Waititi is a New Zealand-born filmmaker, whose 2016 feature “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is a comedy that tackles such topics as racism, mental illness and child abandonment. So to a certain extent, maybe making “Jojo Rabbit” – which tells the story of a 10-year-old Nazi youth whose best friend is an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler – isn’t that much of a stretch.

Maybe. Anyway, “Jojo Rabbit” is set during the final year of World War II. Jojo (played by British actor Roman Griffin Davis) is your typical pre-adolescent boy, enamored by shows of strength and power, and no organization has ever displayed more symbols of ostensible strength than Hitler’s Nazi hordes.

But Jojo is torn. His natural inclinations are those of empathy and compassion. In fact, he gets his nickname, “Jojo Rabbit” – which Waititi, in adapting Christine Leunens’ novel "Caging Skies,” took as his film’s title – following an incident in which, at a Nazi Youth training camp, he is ordered to kill a rabbit … and can’t.

Funny how simple human traits are all too often considered signs of weakness.

In fact, in trying so desperately to fit in with his fellow trainees, Jojo nearly kills himself, ending his quest to become a soldier and relegating him to lowly civilian tasks such as parading around town dressed as a robot and asking for donations of iron.

Waititi’s film really begins when Jojo discovers, to his horror, that his mother – a seemingly typical hausfrau played by Scarlett Johansson – has a secret life. And that she is hiding a Jewish teenager in their attic, which is when Jojo’s real education begins.

Of course, that process – that evolution – doesn’t come easily. His imaginary Adolf – played by Waititi himself – is never far away, cajoling him, berating him, offering him cigarettes (which Jojo refuses) and in each and every way acting not like the Hitler we’ve seen in archival news footage but like a 10-year-old’s exaggerated version of a father figure (Jojo’s own father having disappeared two years before in the war).

And it is this comic intent that seems to have caused so much dissonance among critics, some of whom question not only whether Waititi’s film is making light of the Holocaust but whether such serious subjects can ever be effective comic fodder at all.

All this ignores Chaplin and Brooks, not to mention the fact that Jojo himself is the film’s center. And fueled by 11-year-old Davis’ powerful performance, the film’s message is that simple human kindness is the greatest strength of all.