“Jojo Rabbit” plays like a spiritual descendant of “The Producers.”
I saw the new film — written and directed by New Zealand-born filmmaker Taika Waititi, a Maori Jew — at The Charles this week, in one of the smaller theaters, so completely packed with customers that the laughter and gulping at the pathos could be felt palpably.
Without the worldwide success of yesteryear’s “The Producers,” “Jojo” might’ve never been made. It’s hard to say, since many of us are still trying to work out our reaction to laughter in the face of Nazis and their atrocities.
But I try to consider the rationale of Mel Brooks, who brought us “The Producers” with its choreographed “Springtime for Hitler” gags.
When “The Producers” first came out in 1967, Brooks once recalled, “Every rabbi in the world sent me a letter. … [But] by using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths.”
At its funniest, I found “Jojo” every bit as uproarious as “Producers” – the Zero Mostel/Gene Wilder original, the Nathan Lane/Matthew Broderick stage play, and the movie based on the stage version.
That’s a lot of laughter at Hitler’s expense.
What “Jojo” has, though, that Brooks’ scripts didn’t have (because they never attempted it) is a significant part of the story devoted to the war, and to Hitler’s monstrousness, and to the vulnerability of the Jews.
In a time of rising anti-Semitism, jokes about Nazis are kind of tricky. The journalist and film critic A.O. Scott addressed this a few months ago in the New York Times, noting that such attempts represent “a form of exorcism, a way of appropriating the symbols of terror and hatred and stripping them of their power by exposing their absurd, idiotic banality.”
Roman Griffin Davis plays Johannes Betzler, a 10-year-old German boy who has an imaginary friend. That’s not so unusual. What’s unusual is Johannes’ choice of imaginary friend.
It’s a great metaphor. An entire country not only embraced to Hitler and his mad ravings, but imagined he had powers far beyond reality. Johannes is called “Jojo Rabbit” because he’s as scared as a bunny and needs his imaginary friend to buck him up during a tough time at Hitler Youth camp.
Theoretically, the kid buys into the whole program. In reality, he hasn’t got the stomach for it, especially when he finds hiding in an alcove in his mother’s house a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) trying to survive the war’s closing weeks.
Scarlett Johansson plays Johannes’ mom. If every Hitler Youth had such a mom, it might have been a different kind of war.
Certainly a funnier one.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.