Turning Nazis into goofballs is not, in itself, really a joke, so I was relieved to find out Jojo Rabbit, from the quirky New Zealand director Taika Waititi, doesn't rely solely on this approach. It's definitely there, but it's far from the only joke, and it's also far from what the movie wants to say.
Jojo Rabbit tells the story of Jojo Betzler, a 10-year-old boy in Germany at the end of World War II. Jojo desperately wants to support the war effort and tries to enlist in the Hitler Youth. But Jojo is a kind-hearted boy, and so when he's faced with having to prove his mettle by killing a bunny, he can't do it, he's roundly ridiculed, and he ends up with the titular nickname.
Jojo has known nothing but Nazi propaganda, so he naturally wants to be part of what his country says is right and good, and he's all-in on what nearly everyone tells him about Aryan supremacy, demonization of the Jews, and Hitler worship. In fact, Hitler is so much his hero that he often talks to an imaginary-friend version of the man, who is sort of a cross between a 10-year-old's own thoughts and anxieties and the rabid demagoguery Jojo would have seen from the actual Hitler.
Jojo Rabbit made me think a lot about what we do to our children, how we co-opt their thoughts and feelings, and the sort of world we give them and leave them. Jojo spouts such vile rhetoric, but it's also true that he really is a sweet boy — he simply has no other concept of things. I felt sad seeing Jojo and his best friend, another kind little boy, embroiled in such horror.
I said making Nazis goofy isn't much of a joke, but there is value in it. So often, movies depict Nazis as superhuman monsters, which itself is a kind of skewed reverence that prevents us from acknowledging the evil actual people can do. And if we can't reckon with what we, ourselves, are capable of, what hope is there for our children?