By Susan Kandell Wilkofsky
“Jojo Rabbit,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 (where it won the People’s Choice Award), is the highly controversial comedy/satire from the brilliant mind of New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “Thor: Ragnarok”). The story revolves around Jojo Betzler (marvelous newcomer Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany during World War II. He is in training to be a soldier at a Nazi Youth Camp led by the inept Captain Klenzendorf (the always fabulous Sam Rockwell). After being ridiculed by his superiors for not being able to kill a rabbit, which is then followed by an unfortunate accident, Jojo is forced to spend more time at home, where he makes a startling discovery. Hidden behind the walls of a room upstairs is Elsa (a lovely Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teenager aided by Jojo’s mother Rosie (a radiant Scarlett Johansson). Needing advice and a surrogate father, Jojo turns to his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. Taika Waititi has not only adapted the book and directed the film, he turns in a zany performance as Adolf Hitler. Preposterous, you say? No, just very Waititi.
Did you read that right? A comedy about the Nazis, written by, directed by and starring a Jew? This is hardly the first time politically incorrect humor has been brought to the screen. In the documentary “The Last Laugh,” director Ferne Pearlstein explored whether the Holocaust can ever be an appropriate topic for humor. Speaking with survivors and well-respected comedians, each was asked if it was ever acceptable to make jokes about the Nazi death camps. Three conclusions were drawn; 1. That the Holocaust was probably still off-limits, but making fun of Nazis is perfectly admissible (as in “Springtime for Hitler”). 2. If you do make a joke about a dark subject, it better be exceedingly witty. 3. Only Jews can actually deliver the jokes. Remember the “Yada Yada” Seinfeld episode? It specifically dealt with that concept. When Jerry’s dentist (Bryan Cranston) converted to Judaism, Jerry suspected he did it only “for the jokes.”
Using the above metrics, screenplay writer and director Taika Waititi has all his bases covered in “Jojo Rabbit.” He mercilessly skewers Nazis; the humor is unabashedly funny and he’s Jewish! Although his father is Maori, his mother is of Russian Jewish heritage. Even his tweets are humorous. He took to Twitter to share, “What better way to insult Hitler than having him portrayed by a Polynesian Jew?”
“Jojo Rabbit” was inspired by the novel “Caging Skies,” written by Christine Leunens in 2008. Waititi’s mother, a New Zealand native whose Russian Jewish family immigrated to New Zealand in the early 1900s, read the book and recapped the story for Taika. According to producer Carthew Neal, “When Taika read it, he realized it was more serious than he’d imagined, but had the heart and gravity required in this kind of story. He was then able to springboard from this, adding his special touches and bring it into his comic and tonal universe.” Waititi, recognizing that the book was essentially more of a drama, felt that if he was to tackle this delicate subject, he had to infuse his own personality and style into it. “That meant more fantastical elements and obviously more humor, creating a kind of dance between drama and satire.”
“Jojo Rabbit,” which bills itself as an “anti-hate satire,” may not be everyone’s idea of what is funny. Humor is a markedly personal subject. But I adhere to the concept that every book, every film — just about all methods of communication have the potential to teach us something. Taika Waititi, through his unique comedic style, has seized a very difficult episode in history and transformed it into an uplifting, positive story. He does not overlook the horrors of the war, but does remind us that the future is hopeful. As a master manipulator of emotions, Waititi will have you laughing one moment and crying the next.