Unlikely though it sounds, we have a need to laugh at Adolf Hitler, on the movie screen if nowhere else.
Some of our greatest comedy directors, from Charles Chaplin (“The Great Dictator”) to Ernst Lubitsch (the brilliant “To Be or Not to Be”) to Mel Brooks (“The Producers”), have used der Fuhrer as a figure of fun, trying, perhaps, to make a monster more manageable by having a laugh at his expense.
Writer-director Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” the latest example of this resilient trend, shows both the pleasures and the limits of a seriously off-the-wall idea.
Erratic but engaging, going in and out of daring, the film’s mixture of black humor and unashamed sentimentality is not always as good as its best parts.
But those parts, like playing the Beatles singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in German over worshipful Hitler footage from “Triumph of the Will,” will definitely make you shake your head and smile.
Though “Jojo” is inspired by “Caging Skies,” a novel by Christine Leunens, the spirit of the film undeniably comes from fellow New Zealander Waititi, whose antic, unclassifiable sense of humor has enlivened everything from the low-budget indie “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” to the massive Marvel tentpole “Thor: Ragnarok.”
The success of that film likely made the riskier “Jojo,” which Waititi had been working on for eight years, a reality and gave the filmmaker the opportunity to put on a fake mustache himself and play the role of Hitler on the big screen.
Not the real Hitler, as it turns out, but an imaginary one who lives in the mind of a 10-year-old in Nazi Germany and befriends the lad when he is feeling most alone. (A similar concept, with a different strongman, was behind Goran Markovic’s too-little-seen 1992 Yugoslavian film “Tito and Me.”)
Because Waititi knows just how to play the fantasy Hitler he created (the character is not in the novel), he’s the best thing about “Jojo Rabbit,” so much so that when his manic sensibility leaves the screen he is very much missed.
Everything begins during the waning days of the Third Reich on the most exciting morning ever for young Jojo Betzler (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis).
Young though he is, Jojo is a zealous Nazi, a boy fanatic who is beyond excited as he puts on his Hitler Youth uniform and gets ready for what promises to be “the best weekend ever” of indoctrination into Nazi ideology.
Looking him over approvingly is Hitler himself. “Yeah, man,” der Fuhrer says admiringly. “You’re the most loyal little Nazi I ever met,” adding a glib, “Heil me, man” (a nod perhaps to one of the great moments in the Lubitsch film).
Joining the group along with best friend Yorki (Archie Yates), Jojo meets not the most impressive bunch group of Nazi leaders: Fraulein Rahm (a funny Rebel Wilson) and Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, almost stealing the picture), who grouses about being stuck in this demeaning detail “since Operation Screw-Up, where I lost a perfectly good eye in a totally preventable enemy attack.”
Jojo and Yorki spend a lot of time on the weekend learning about the pernicious nature of Jews, noting the tell-tale presence of horns and other key characteristics, a darkly comic situation that Waititi, whose mother was Jewish and father Maori, pitches exactly right.
But then an accident happens, as accidents tend to do, and Jojo is confined to his house, an empty place given that his father is gone to parts unknown and his mother is often occupied elsewhere.
Energetically played by Scarlett Johansson, Rosie Betzler is a mysterious, smartly dressed woman (Mayes C. Rubio did the fine costumes) who says things like, “I am cursed with being incredibly attractive,” as she walks purposefully around their small German town.
Though we eventually find out the reason for Rosie’s air of mystery, her character ends up more peripheral than feels fair, and Johansson seems underused playing someone who is onscreen to make specific plot points and nothing more.
The heart of “Jojo Rabbit” plays out in that empty apartment, which, as it turns out, is not as empty as it seems. Hidden in a secret compartment behind a cupboard is Elsa (“Leave No Trace’s” exemplary Thomasin McKenzie), a feisty young woman who responds to a question from the boy with a tart “I’m not a ghost, I’m something worse: a Jew.”
Naturally such an evil presence throws Jojo into a tizzy, as it does Hitler, who responds with a classic, “Jeez, that was intense,” after that first encounter.
But though the relationship between Jojo and Elsa starts off with a welcome oddness — “Yoohoo, Jew” is Jojo’s greeting of choice — it is of course inevitable that divides will be bridged and an Entente Cordiale reached.
All this feels quite personal to Waititi, who has told interviewers about the pain of growing up in New Zealand half-Maori and half-Jewish, but the way it plays out is more preordained than involving.
If “Jojo Rabbit” doesn’t finally hold together as we’d like it to, it has attempted so much and been so completely its own film that begrudging it good wishes feels not really fair. And if it drives viewers to take a chance on “To Be or Not to Be” or even “Tito and Me,” so much the better.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles