One of the great stories in cinema lore is Jerry Lewis’ 1972 The Day the Clown Cried, in which the comic legend and actor/director helmed a World War II internment comedy that has never been released. It stars Lewis as Helmut, a clown who is arrested by the S.S. and mistakenly placed in the Auschwitz death camp, where he entertains the children and annoys the guards. The turning point comes at the climax (and this is a spoiler for a 47-year-old movie that most will never see), when Helmut is ordered to march those kids into a gas chamber, which he does. Lewis aimed to make a serious-minded farce about the horrors of war, contrasted with the innocence of children. I have a copy of the screenplay, which I read aloud with my Lost Films class years ago, as we dissected a notorious work that Lewis never released. Now the Library of Congress has Lewis’ film, which they will begin screening publicly in June of 2024. The chosen few who’ve seen Lewis’ infamous lost film declare it best unseen, including the director himself.
What does this have to do with writer/director/actor Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit? Quite a lot, actually. The New Zealand-born comic wunderkind has a new movie which centers on a young boy named Johannes, living in Nazi Germany during the latter years of WWII. Johannes has been recruited by the Nazis into a Hitler youth camp and is a passionate but bumbling candidate. His failure to murder a forest animal on command earns him the nickname “Jojo Rabbit.” Offering encouragement is Johanne’s stern but loving mother (played by Scarlett Johansson) and Johanne’s imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi).
None of this should work, as the premise is dubious and the overall point (Nazism is bad) is apparent after the first few minutes. What carries the film very far (for a while, at least) is a careful establishment of tone. This isn’t just a cautionary tale about the danger of embracing a toxic ideology but an all-out mockery of Der Fuhrer and the numbskull mindset of his goose-stepping nimrods. Packing a cheeky, cheerful tone and a Looney Tunes approach to its scenes of Nazi instruction, Jojo Rabbit mostly works because of how funny it is.
The actors go a long way to making it enjoyable for the first and second act. Waititi’s take on Hitler alternates between hysterically funny and jarringly forceful. The whole Hitler-is-my-imaginary-buddy concept works because of how vivid and wild his performance is. In the title role, Roman Griffin Davis is effective in a demanding turn and Thomasin Mckenzie (so great in last year’s Leave No Trace) is excellent here, in a key role I won’t describe. There’s also one of Johansson’s finest turns and Sam Rockwell is surprisingly effective as the one Nazi instructor Johannes connects with.
Waititi’s film doesn’t stick the landing, concluding in a way that should have been far stronger. It’s not necessary for a WWII film about Nazi occupation to have a dour ending but the concluding scenes here are too pat. For a film that presents such a bold vision, it ends in a slight, twee manner. Far better (and an example of how much further Waititi should have gone) is Rockwell’s fantastic closing scene (ditto the final moment for a never-better Rebel Wilson).
Back to The Day the Clown Cried. Misguided good intentions are the culprit for many bad films and, from what we know about that film, Lewis’ earnestness resulted in a what-was-he-thinking curiosity item. Trying to garner humor and, most dangerous of all, forced heartfelt emotion out of a topic as loaded as the Holocaust and the wartime persecution of Jews is asking for trouble. Waitit’s film doesn’t deal explicitly with the Holocaust (which is mentioned as a memory) but aims to blend anachronistic jokes and heartbreaking revelations in a way that always courts a tonal train wreck. That never occurs and his film is impactful. How much better Jojo Rabbit is against The Day the Clown Cried remains to be seen.
Rated PG-13/108 Min.