Is Germany Ready to Laugh at Hitler in 'Jojo Rabbit'?

Taika Waititi's World War II satire — in which the director plays der Führer himself — could face its toughest audience in a country still haunted by its Nazi past.

Nearly 75 years after the end of World War II, is Germany prepared to embrace a big-screen comedy about Adolf Hitler? More specifically, will German audiences come out for Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit, a Nazi satire featuring Waititi himself in the role of an imaginary, goofy and goose-stepping Führer?

Making jokes about the most horrific period in German history — in a country still haunted by its past — can be a tricky business. My Führer, a 2007 satire from the Jewish-Swiss director Dani Levy — which imagines Hitler getting public speaking lessons from a Jewish actor — was lacerated by German critics and disappointed at the box office. And with a real threat from rising right-wing extremism in the country — the nationalist, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party won more than 12 percent of the vote in 2017 elections — Germans these days are even more careful about what they laugh at.

"I have a joke I do onstage," says Shahak Shapira, an Israeli comedian based in Berlin. "I say: 'Auschwitz has five stars on Yelp. McDonald's has three. So, objectively, chicken nuggets are worse than the Holocaust.' In Germany, I've had people get up and walk out of my show when I do that bit … Germans see Hitler and World War II from a different perspective, just as slavery is seen from a different perspective in America."

But Munich-based production house Constantin scored a huge success in 2015 with Look Who's Back, a Borat-style comedy that imagines Hitler waking up, unharmed and unchanged, in modern-day Berlin. He quickly becomes a YouTube sensation and a comedy star. The film earned nearly $22 million in Germany.

"Germans know more, a lot more, about the history than audiences elsewhere,” says Constantin Film Chairman Martin Moskowicz. “They reject clichéd or simplified portrayals of the period. The core of Look Who's Back, and in my opinion the main reason for its success, was that it transported Hitler to the modern-day. It wasn't about breaking taboos about laughing at Hitler but rather showing that Hitler's ideas, horribly, could still be quite popular today.”

Outside Germany, Jojo Rabbit is unlikely to face much in the way of outrage. In the rest of Europe, comedy and satire set during World War II are not taboo. Most European industry insiders who spoke to THR about the film said it could be a strong performer for Fox Searchlight, pointing to the success of Life Is Beautiful, another satire/tragicomedy set during the war, which grossed $229 million worldwide despite being in Italian.

"Films like this live and die by their P&A spend and the reviews," says U.K.-based producer Jonathan Weissler. With the right studio backing — and Jojo Rabbit has the full marketing might of the new Disney-Fox monolith behind it — he believes Jojo Rabbit would do "very well" across the Atlantic.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.