CatherineShort’s review published on Letterboxd:
As a New Zealander I root for prominent New Zealand filmmakers like Jane Campion and Taika Waititi to make films that are critically and commercially successful. The fact that this film was both made me want to like it inherently and so I must admit that I was probably more forgiving of it’s flaws than a more impartial reviewer would have been. I still found many flaws in the film as for a comedy I did not laugh nearly enough but the parts of the film that worked really worked and it is Waititi would appear to be more adept at satirizing Nazis than Roberto Benigni.
The young Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, Roman Griffin Davis, is a member of the Hitler Youth and imagines that an ethnically ambiguous Hitler, Taika Waititi, is his best friend. He struggles in his training as the hyper masculine instructor Captain Klenzendorf, Sam Rockwell, is not forgiving of his lack of physical strength and killer instinct. After being injured by a grenade he is allowed to stay at home and not attend school while being given menial jobs to do by Klenzendorf at day. He has a tenuous relationship with his mother Rosie, Scarlett Johansson, who does not support the Nazi party and secretly houses a Jewish girl, Elsa Korr, Thomasin McKenzie, in the bedroom of Betzler’s dead sister. Betzler discovers Korr without his mother’s knowledge and slowly forges a friendship with her as he learns that she is a normal person and not the devil that he has been taught that all Jewish people are. His life changes when his mother is hanged in the street and he becomes even more resistant to Nazi ideas. He and Korr form a closer bond as she narrowly escapes being caught by the SS and the Allied forces win the war prompting widespread changes in Germany.
Mel Brooks is said to believe that one of the few things that comedy does not apply to is the holocaust and he was openly disgusted by the humor used to make light of the horrific genocide in Life is Beautiful. I assume that he would not like this film either as it does favor the German perspective over the Jewish and the real victims of the holocaust and the Nazi Party are sidelined. The film very firmly positions a young man who is positively fanatic about Nazi ideas at the center of it’s story and I can see how many audiences would be offended by the fact that we are expected to like this young man during the first half of the film. What allowed me to get past this was the fact that Betzler’s mother is genuinely opposed to anti-Semitism and the film’s portrayal of Betzler learning that Jewish people should not be persecuted was touching to me. The film is helped by some relatively funny jokes although there are some that just don’t land and terrific performances from Johansson, Griffin Davis and McKenzie.
Johansson plays the most colorful character in the film as Betzler’s loving but witty and sarcastic mother who carries herself with confidence and an integrity not found in many characters in the film. She absolutely nails all of her big comedic lines and it left me wondering why Woody Allen did not put her to better use in trash like Scoop (2006). Her loss at the halfway point of the film is felt as Johansson has made her character lovable and convinced us of her importance in her son’s life. Griffin Davis has the angelic appearance necessary to play a character so despicable in the first half of the film and his chemistry with McKenzie is impressive as his furtive glances at her go a long way in making us believe in his conversion. McKenzie herself is on form as the victim in this situation as she does not allow herself to fall prey to the wiles of a young man and seems wounded enough to weather his insults and threats. Waititi himself goes a bit broad as Hitler for my taste and delivers some unfunny jokes that made me cringe but he is not in the film enough to truly destroy it.
Where more interest could have been derived from was in the implied homosexual relationship between Klenzendorf and his inferior Finkel, Alfie Allen. When keeping in mind that this film is really focused on the Betzler family however I did not expect too much of the Klenzendorf/Finkel dream pairing.