In 1940, Charlie Chaplin spoofed Hitler as Adenoid Hynkel in “The Great Dictator.” He was histrionic and ridiculous with large gestures, facial tics and flapping hands. The film worked because Chaplin is a master of physical comedy and most importantly, he was one of the very first to poke genuine fun at the führer. Otherwise, let’s face it, what’s funny about Adolf or by extension the Holocaust where two thirds of the Jewish population in Europe died?
Twenty-seven years later, Mel Brooks gave audiences “The Producers.” The outrageous song “Springtime for Hitler” is quite funny (and somewhat uncomfortably so) because it exposes Hitler as a ridiculous narcissist with a yearning for Pop stardom. Brooks did it in a grand theatrical way to expose the fascist as an overlarge asinine person. Brooks was the first one to go over the top featuring Nazi guards in a Busby Berkeley musical. Tough stuff to laugh at, but again very effective and now a cinema classic.
Now it’s 2019, and Taika Waititi (“What We Do in The Shadows”) is the next director to hurl well deserved raspberries at the hysterical autocratic Adolf in “Jojo Rabbit.”
The story concerns ten-year-old Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis), an enthusiastic Nazi youth member and his imaginary führer-friend Hitler (played by Waititi). From the first moment we see him, Adolf has the bearing of a vampire from Waititi’s previous film. He glides into the room like the undead and he is even queued in with forbidding music.
Then Johannes is with him sharing space and the dictator is self-deprecating, wanting to offer the boy a cigarette throughout the film. Physically Waititi is perfect as the frivolous führer. A running gag is the two of them saying ‘Heil Hitler’ with mania and it is funny. Johannes gets the proper fire in him and runs through the village Heiling everyone.
What is less effective is Sam Rockwell as a Nazi summer camp instructor doing things with a rifle in the mode of a Chaplin or Three Stooges short. When Waititi goes on a manic rant about the Jewish people, the chuckles are short lived. The jokes feel recycled from “The Producers” especially when Waititi mugs for the camera and eats a meatloaf shaped like a unicorn. Rebel Wilson plays a female Nazi soldier who says corny things while shouting in German. While there are funny moments (e.g. when Johannes’ friend says “I guess it’s not a great time to be a Nazi” when the Germans are losing) the jokes still run thin. A führer smirking and wobbling his legs only goes so far.
Johannes gets hit by a grenade in his zeal and while putting up propaganda posters, he finds a Jewish refugee (Thomasin McKenzie) in the crawlspace. A rapport ensues. Johannes gets the message that Nazis aren’t such a super race after all.
Davis and McKenzie are excellent and they give heart to the slapstick going on. Scarlett Johansson is the boy’s freedom loving mother.
A highlight is Stephen Merchant as a head Gestapo agent. Merchant plays his sinister snoop with just the right amount of gravity and truth as to make it sincerely funny. Merchant is a scary agent of pale death with a wide smile just as the gestapo existed, or so I imagine.
Another fine touch is when Johannes at the end realizes that war is an abhorrent event with childhood pain and death everywhere. Though the message is often said, it is well handled.
The Nazi-centered quips are not as funny as they should be, in part because Chaplin and Brooks still feel so daring and original today. Most of the jokes are about the führer looking great with Nazis caressing various lugers or weapons.
While the children’s side of the story has pathos, the David Bowie song ‘Heroes’ feels predictable (given that the boy has a scar like a Ziggy Stardust lightning bolt).
Waititi is a talented director and a sincerely funny comedian but his super silly SS officers, combined with an all too easy ending (that says war is hell but we can still dance), feels oddly rote and uninspired.
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