There's a very fine line between successfully mining Hitler and Nazi Germany for laughs and distasteful "jokes" that land with an ignominious splat. Director Taika Waititi navigates that treacherous tightrope perfectly in Jojo Rabbit, his bittersweet new dramedy based on the novel, Caging Skies, by Christine Leunens. The film will definitely make you laugh, but be forewarned: it may also break your heart.
Waititi's film defies easy categorization. Let's just call it an absurdist dramedy. It's being touted as a satire, and the marketing has emphasized the humorous elements, but the WWII setting also calls to mind darker fare like Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (2009). Several critics have compared it to the Oscar-winning 1997 Italian film, Life Is Beautiful, directed by and starring Roberto Benigni as a Jewish father shielding his son from the horrors of a WWII concentration camp by pretending it's all an elaborate game.
Jojo Rabbit falls somewhere in between. It has more warmth and heart than the former and more of a savage edge than the latter. And while Waititi cites Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973) and the 1988 black comedy Heathers as influences, tonally, Jojo Rabbit also owes quite a lot to Waititi's charming 2016 film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
(Some minor spoilers below, but no major twists are revealed.)
The film opens with ten-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) excitedly getting ready for his first Hitler Youth camp, with encouragement from his imaginary BFF, Adolf Hitler (Waititi). Waititi has said that Imaginary Hitler is essentially a substitute for the boy's absent father, who went off to fight in the war and has been incommunicado for some time. The camp is run by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), assisted by Frenkel (Alfie Allen) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). The eager children practice "war games," gas mask drills, basic combat, and of course, blowing things up. But when Jojo can't bring himself to kill a rabbit to prove his mettle, he is taunted for his cowardice and nicknamed "Rabbit."
Jojo is a True Believer, inasmuch as a ten-year-old can be, accepting without question the Nazi propaganda and camp gossip about Jewish people (as in, they have horns and can read each other's minds). So he is shocked to discover that his own mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), has been harboring a pretty teenaged Jewish refugee named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Elsa is the first Jewish person Jojo has ever met, and their interactions gradually force the boy to confront his flawed assumptions and beliefs. This threatens to drive a wedge between Jojo and Imaginary Hitler, who is none too pleased at the turn of events.