There’s a deep and sincere sweetness in the work of writer-director Taika Waititi. It’s a kind of relentless and innocent good cheer that persists in the face of horror — to the point where the horror is obscured, or maybe defanged. That sweetness is in full effect in this story of a little German boy who makes an imaginary friend out of Der Führer to help him on his way to becoming a proper Hitler Youth, only to discover that his Mom has been keeping a secret while Dad’s away at war: his dead sister’s Jewish best friend is hiding upstairs. The result is reminiscent of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautful, another film that used the horrors of the Holocaust as the backdrop for a little kid’s big adventure. It’s clear that in both cases, the intentions are entirely good; no one’s looking to exploit or ignore the nightmare atrocity, just to find glimmers of light and love amid the darkness and hate. And maybe find a way to laugh in spite of everything. Look at Hitler! Isn’t he silly, with his little mustache and his need for adoration and attention? After all, it’s not the kid’s fault the world around him has gone mad. He just wants, as his Jewish housemate notes, to belong to a club. And if the club leaders tell him that Jews are inhuman and that someone should write a book about their wicked ways, well, he’s just a clumsy, insecure kid. Some will find his gradual journey toward empathy and love an utterly charming fable, complete with deadpan Sam Rockwell as a nonplused Nazi. Some will find it a borderline apologia for haters, a softhearted attempt to find good people on both sides. And some will find it ping-ponging awkwardly between the two. There’s a reason the poster proclaims the film “an anti-hate satire” — it wants to make sure you don’t get the wrong idea from what’s on the screen. (2019) — Matthew Lickona
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