Long ago, turning Nazi Germany into a joke was verboten. Or, at least, it seems like it was; it’s actually hard to imagine a time when that was the case. Charlie Chaplin made Hitler into a figure of ridicule in “The Great Dictator,” released in 1940. I grew up watching “Hogan’s Heroes,” which portrayed life in a German wartime prison — the inept sadist Col. Klink! — as a kind of Nazi sitcom day camp (with the emphasis on camp). “Springtime for Hitler,” the scandalous musical number from Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” was once the cutting edge of black comedy, but not for the last 50 years. Quentin Tarantino thumbed his nose at Nazis with jaunty glee in “Inglourious Basterds,” and who would have had it any other way?
That said, let’s give “Jojo Rabbit” credit for this much: It’s the first hipster Nazi comedy. Written and directed by the New Zealand-born Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok”), it’s like a Wes Anderson movie set during the Third Reich. The opening-credits sequence hits a devilish note of rock ‘n’ roll effrontery I hoped would continue, as the Beatles’ German-language version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” plays over documentary clips of World War II Germans raising their hands in the “Heil Hitler!” salute. This is followed by scenes at a Hitler Youth camp, where Sam Rockwell, as the squad leader, and Rebel Wilson, as some sort of seething assistant, parade themselves as confidently one-note caricatures.
And then there’s the movie’s satirical trump card. Waititi, looking like Michael Palin in an old Monty Python sketch, keeps popping up as a kind of stylized goof-head version of Adolf Hitler, who speaks in aggressive anachronisms (“That was intense!” “I’m stressed out!” “Correctamundo!” “That was a complete bust!” “So, how’s it all going with that Jew thing upstairs?”), sounding like a petulant mean-girl version of the Führer.
So why are we watching this cartoon-fantasy Hitler? He’s the imaginary friend of Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a goggled-eyed, tousle-haired 10-year-old boy — is it a coincidence that he looks like a young version of Chaplin? — who has grown up in the Third Reich and is still in thrall to it. It’s all that he knows. Since his father is away in the war, Waititi’s Hitler, who shows up whenever Jojo needs counseling, is like a fairy godfather who happens to believe in genocide.
Once you get used to this rather affable satirical Hitler (though he does have his tantrums), which takes all of two minutes, he’s not what I would call bombs-away hilarious, unless you’re the sort of person who still finds “Springtime for Hitler” outrageous. Then again, the ultimate intent of the comedy in “Jojo Rabbit” isn’t to make us laugh. It’s to get the audience to flatter itself for liking a movie that pretends to be audacious when it’s actually quite tidy and safe. The comedy is the hook, the bait, the amuse-bouche, the cue for us to detach ourselves from whatever we’re watching and feel good about it (as opposed to merely disengaged). It’s part of the “Jojo Rabbit” package — a movie that’s trying to hip itself into the center of the awards season (and just might). It’s this year’s model of Nazi Oscar-bait showmanship: “Life Is Beautiful” made with attitude.
And yet it’s not as if it’s a terrible movie. It’s actually a studiously conventional movie dressed up in the self-congratulatory “daring” of its look!-let’s-prank-the-Nazis cachet. The Nazi jokes aren’t really that funny, which may be why they start to take a back seat after the opening act. Having established his hipster pact with the audience, Waititi can settle down to what the film is really about: the friendship that evolves between Jojo, who gets tossed out of the Hitler Youth after a grenade scars his face, and after his refusal to strangle a bunny rabbit in front of his young peers demonstrates that he doesn’t have the right Nazi stuff (hence his emasculating nickname: Jojo Rabbit); and Elsa Korr (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), the Jewish girl that his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is hiding in a secret chamber behind a panel of their study.
Why is she hiding her? Because she’s a German civilian who appears to be as progressive in her attitudes as Elizabeth Warren. That’s the sort of black-and-white psychology this movie has. (You’re either nasty or nice.) Elsa is kind of like Anne Frank (who McKenzie, from “Leave No Trace,” resembles), but the complication in her relationship with Jojo is this: The boy knows only what he’s been taught — and what he’s been taught is that Jews are inhuman and have devil horns. “Jojo Rabbit” is set during the last months of World War II, and by the time the war starts to wind down, Jojo has begun, however tentatively, to see through the wrong of what he’s absorbed.
The audience will see through it, too. But is this really a lesson we need to learn? “Jojo Rabbit” is based on “Caging Skies,” a novel by Christine Leunens that’s entirely serious in tone, but the movie turns its kid hero’s blinkered anti-Semitism into another form of hipsterism. The fact that the heart of Jojo’s dialogue with Elsa is his desire to hear what Jews are like plays as a too-cool-for-school version of the usual bonding dialogue between a couple of kid actors. We’re meant to identify with Jojo, since he’s the hero, and so the film tweaks us, however playfully, into “identifying” with his feeling that Jews are the Other, knowing full well that he’ll come around. We know he will because Elsa is the film’s strongest presence, both sassy and full of saddened feeling. And Roman Griffin Davis is an impressive young actor, with a face that’s like hundred emojis. I put it that way because the movie, even when it grows sentimental, doesn’t draw us inside the feelings these two have for each other. It leaves those feelings on the surface.
If it were more honest, “Jojo Rabbit” would just be the Anne Frank-meets-and-befriends-and-converts-Nazi-boy “Afterschool Special” it is at heart. But that would be a movie that comes and goes, especially with Oscar voters. What gives “Jojo Rabbit” its “specialness,” what makes it a kind of “Moonrise Kingdom” with swastikas and German Shepherd jokes, is that it lacks the courage of its own conventionality. It’s a feel-good movie, all right, but one that uses the fake danger of defanged black comedy to leave us feeling good about the fact that we’re above a feel-good movie.