If you were young boy living in a militaristic society, and you weren’t really very physically competent yourself but you had a lot of spirit, it stands to reason that you might idolize and even adopt as an imaginary friend the leader of that society. That said, when the militaristic society is Germany in the second world war and the leader Adolf Hitler, it might give you pause as the subject of a comedic coming-of-age film. Unless, of course, you’re Taika Waititi.
Taika Waititi is popular around here for his What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the latter of which was a candidate for one of our best films of 2016. But even though we liked Thor: Ragnarok, massive Hollywood success ruins most everyone and we weren’t sure what to expect from this.
Well, if you ever wanted your Nazis to talk with delightful kiwi accents, this is your movie! (I, for one, haven’t stopped talking like “rock guy” since I saw Thor.) I mean, they try German accents, but they’re all overlaid with the Kiwi and by the end it seemed like they just gave up on the German. The only exceptions were the Americans (Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johannson).
Anyway, the story goes that the little boy Jo, a proud Hitler Youth in the last days of the war, is trying to fit in to this rather aggressive (and increasingly desperate society). His inability to separate his fantasy life from reality causes problems, however, especially for his camp counselor/washed-up drunk played by Sam Rockwell. Jo’s mom (Johannson) then puts it on Rockwell’s character to keep the boy occupied and contributing to the war effort.
The hitch (apart from the approaching Allied Forces) is that Jo discovers a young Jewish girl hiding out in his house. This inflames, then challenges his notions of what Jews are. He begins to write a book about Jews, depicting them as the monsters he’s been told they are, and filling in the extra details with information from Elsa, his hidden Jew. She’s more than happy to work out her rage by embracing the worst stereotypes (and fantasies) of the Third Reich and embellishing on them further.
Of course, it all ends in tears. I mean, sorry for the spoilers, but WWII ends in tears for the Germans.
The real thing about this movie is that, much like Wilderpeople, it is tonally all over the map. While it dips into as serious issues as there are (much like Wilderpeople) the comic relief (which is frequent) is very broad, even slapstick, with Rebel Wilson being a more-or-less constant dip into the deep-end of the comedy pool, while Rockwell’s character allows him to be on either side of the comic/serious spectrum. He has genuinely humane and touching moments, but his battle outfit design for the final onslaught which seems very much like Jojo might have come up with.
Oh, yeah, and there’s Hitler. I mean, it’s Jo Jo’s Hitler, and of course Waititi gave himself that plum role. But still, Hitler.
It’s an odd film. Oddly endearing. Not boring at all. By turns funny and dramatic and rather suspenseful. But whether or not you can get through it—to enjoy it—may depend on how much whimsy you can bring to bear with regard to the last days of Germany in WWII. For example, my stepfather is quite the expert and student of all things WWII and he can’t bring himself to watch the movie at all. I understand that.
His counter-example was Inglorius Basterds which he found distasteful fantasy. As did The Boy and I, but we were glad we saw this and we enjoyed it, though we weren’t really sure overall how we “felt” about it, in that larger nebulous sense.