Describing the recently released film Jojo Rabbit as “a slapstick farce about a Hitler-worshiping ten-year-old surrounded by idiotic Nazis in the waning days of World War II,” Ross Douthat explains why it falls flat:
It wants to have its jokes at Nazidom’s expense, to portray Hitler as a mincing idiot and his ideology as something only a ten-year-old could possibly believe, but ultimately ends up with a pious message about the power of hatred and the power of intimacy to overcome it. “An anti-hate satire” runs the tagline on the movie’s posters, but the satire inevitably gets weaker as the anti-hate message gets stronger, until what began as a truly gonzo exercise finishes up resembling a competent Miramax drama from twenty years ago—The Girl in the Wall.
This result illustrates a plausible rule for any filmmaker intent on mocking Nazis: the closer you get to the Holocaust, the more your efforts at satire will be swallowed up. There’s a reason that [the 1960s TV situation comedy] Hogan’s Heroes was set in a POW camp, not in Buchenwald. There’s a reason that the funniest Nazi send-ups are so often sketches, bits, and memes, [such as] the play-within-a-movie of The Producers. Satire dies under Arbeit macht frei as surely as comedy falters at the gates of hell; the devil can be satirized in pieces but the reality of damnation is a different matter.
In the end Jojo Rabbit finds the sour spot. Its portrait of a boy’s redemption is far too glib to help us understand damnation, but it gets too close to the provinces of hell to justify its strong dose of froth and camp and silliness. The seriousness ultimately unravels the comedy, and then the unseriousness of that seriousness means the movie unravels itself.