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.