Since the screening last night of Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” at TIFF, I’ve seen some unusual responses to it on Twitter. For some reason, internet fans really wanted this Hitler satire to work. It doesn’t. “Jojo Rabbit” is actually borderline anti-Semitic, offensive on many levels, and not even funny.
The parallel here is not “Life is Beautiful,” the 1998 movie about a clown who entertained his child while they were in a concentration camp. That movie took the Holocaust seriously, and made no case for Hitler and his atrocities. It was clearly an indictment.
No, Waititi, who is half Jewish and comes from New Zealand, seems like he was aiming for “Springtime for Hitler” redux, a long riff on Mel Brooks’s centerpiece from “The Producers.” But “The Producers”– which was hilarious– didn’t denigrate Jews to make its point. Hitler and Nazis were always the target.
“Jojo Rabbit” is set in Germany during the late 40s. Jojo Rabbit, a 10 year old boy played very nicely by Roman Griffin Davis, is being raised by his mother (Scarlett Johansson) under Nazi rule. The kid is presented as a virulent Nazi wannabe, trying to emulate the soldiers in town. He talks incessant slurs against Jews to the point of distraction.
When we see the actual screenplay, this will be even more obvious. It’s not comical. It’s not funny, or humorous. Little Jojo hates Jews. Meantime he’s engaged with Nazis in a kids’ training camp led by Sam Rockwell, and again, it’s not funny. I know it’s supposed to be, but it ain’t. I don’t need an hour of Nazis making fun of Jews constantly. It’s overkill. And just seeing a Nazi office break a rabbit’s neck for fun doesn’t mitigate what’s going on.
Listen, the audience in the Princess of Wales theater laughed a lot during this section. I don’t know why. This was not a send up of Hitler, even though the director plays Hitler as Jojo’s imaginary friend. Waititi’s Hitler is sort of like the the one from the Broadway musical “Producers”– foppish, funny, self-involved. He really reminded me of the late Gary Beach, plucked from the proper context and plopped into the wrong one. And even that makes no sense since Jojo idolizes Hitler, yet his imaginary friend is a comic send up.
Anyway, all of this changes when Jojo, home alone, discovers an Ann Frank-like Jewish girl hiding in his mother’s house. This girl, a teen named Ilsa (talented Thomasin McKenzie), who resembles Anne Frank and is meant to change Jojo’s feelings about Jews, you know, make him realize they’re not so bad. After all, his mother’s been hiding her in a secret cupboard all these years without telling him.
At this point, Johansson exits the movie, leaving the kids on their own to survive the American bombing and rescue of their town. By now, the anti-Jewish rhetoric has calmed down because Jojo is “in love” with Ilsa. But the damage has been done, and not just to the village but to our sensibilities. We’ve endured a lesson for hate mongers. Waititi seems to not know he’s played with hot potatoes.
Not many people will see “Jojo Rabbit” in theaters, I don’t think. The moviegoing audience should and will feel incredibly uncomfortable sitting through an hour of explanations of why Jews are monsters and animals and so on. I worry more about cable and streaming, where content spews forward without context.
Let’s say Waititi really felt he was satirizing Hitler and Nazis, that he’s not anti-Semitic. But this is what he’s disseminating. He’s handing ideas and language out uncritically to a new generation of kids, who will laugh like the people in the Toronto audience and applaud new ways of expressing hate.
So, yes, the acting is great, the kids are talented, and the last half hour of the movie gets sentimental. Jojo’s imaginary Hitler is conquered, and the two kids face a brave new post-Nazi world together like nothing ever happened. I don’t get it. I’m sure the Twitterverse I’ve read today will think I’m out of it. But I say, wait til this movie gets into theaters. Let the audience decide.