Making this kind of film was always going to require the treading of a very fine line. The Death of Stalin walked the same tightrope and while I didn’t think the balance was right on that one, lots of other people certainly did. This is how it is with these things; some people will like it, some won’t and a certain quarter will inevitably find it offensive. Personally I thought Jojo Rabbit was excellent but I have to accept it is problematic. As I say, it was always going to be.
On the surface of it, director Taika Waititi’s new film is a comedy about Hitler and the Holocaust. You can see the issue. This is not a new idea of course; lots of artists have parodied the führer before, most notably Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks, and there is nothing wrong with making jokes of this. It is literally laughing in the face of evil. The legitimate concern here though is that the film trivialises the Nazi’s treatment of Jews and other people in World War II. Variety covered an interesting debate that followed a screening of the movie at the Museum of Tolerance in L.A (read it here) and the feeling seemed to be that the problem was one of context. Without knowing the wider history, young audiences may not appreciate that the comedy Nazi’s on screen represent a very real and very dangerous movement, that in some form still exists. It was concluded that Jojo Rabbit may serve as an important conversation starter though, as long as people have that conversation.
I don’t think Jojo Rabbit is intended to start a discussion though, I believe it is designed to be part of one that already exists. The makers of the film and much of the viewership are coming from a position of some (albeit varied) knowledge. Cinematically this is the same conversation Chaplin started with The Great Dictator in 1940 just as World War II was starting. I agree that there is a responsibility to bring less informed cinema goers up to speed but I’m not sure where that duty lies. Possibly not, probably not with Taika Waititi. Also, this is not the first and only film on the Holocaust. Cinema as a whole has certainly already tried to show the full picture. Perhaps everyone should simply be made to watch Denial, Son of Saul, The Reader and Schindler’s List first.
My issue with Armando Iannucci’s movie The Death of Stalin was how it depicted the actual, multiple and hideous, crimes that the politicians it presents as bumbling idiots committed. They weren’t wrong to do so, in fact going with the argument above they were absolutely right to do so, but it killed the humour. Jojo Rabbit does do this to some extent. There are certainly moments where tragedy and heartbreak pervade and while it mocks the regime it never makes light of the results. Both sit alongside one another but they remain separate. The film asks you to laugh and lament but never at the same time. Also, and this is crucial, Jojo Rabbit isn’t really about Hitler at all.
In this sense I equate this movie to The Life of Brian which got more than its fair share of criticism on release and for a much weaker reason than this film might. In the same way that Monty Python’s movie is not about Jesus but is actually critiquing and mocking organised religion, then this film is not about Hitler but is actually satirising and condemning fascism and cultural prejudice. The character of Brian is demonstrably not Jesus and in Jojo Rabbit the character of Hitler is unequivocally not Hitler. You be forgiven for thinking otherwise but you’d be missing the point.
Jojo Rabbit tells the story of a young boy living in Germany during the Summer months of 1945. Totally indoctrinated by the der Hitler Jugend but unable to identify with the majority of boys his age he creates an imaginary friend who takes the form of the supreme leader himself. Born of the mind of a ten year old kid this Adolf is inevitably immature, petulant and ridiculous and a million miles away from Bruno Ganz in Downfall. The drama then comes when Jojo discovers the Jewish girl his mother is concealing upstairs and hatred gets slowly eroded by friendship.
The film is often laugh out loud funny and while much of the humour comes from slapstick and sight gags, we are also sniggering at the absolute preposterousness and small mindedness of ignorance and preconceived opinion. This may rob these attitudes of some of their power which is fine because in this setting you are never allowed to forget their threat.
I first saw this film at the London Film Festival back in October, on the same day that I watched Joker. Both movies deal with human beings’ capacity for vicious hatred, resentment and violence but by my mind this one does so with greater responsibility precisely because the perpetrators are ridiculed. This might sound trite but ridicule is a type of condemnation and condemnation is something that I believe Joker severely lacked. Also while prejudice of this type should be feared and never underestimated it does still deserve to be belittled. It is small and cowardly, it is naive, it lacks sense and it is foolish. Prejudice is always stupid, to highlight this is to not dress it up as anything else.
Taika Waititi has shown his ability to juggle comedy and tragedy before, in The Hunt for the Wilderpeople and in Thor: Ragnarok. Here he is doing it again with one of history’s greatest tragedies and I don’t think he trips or stumbles.
Is this one for the kids?
This is a key question. The film is rated 12A for moderate uses of profanity and slight threat but actually I would argue that anyone much below that age might miss the context discussed above. It also clearly has some adult themes.
The Ripley Factor:
All of the respectable and sensible characters in this film are children or women and the only voices of reason come from Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother and Thomasin McKenzie as the girl she is hiding, both of whom are excellent. To call it a feminist film would be to misread the particular battle that the movie is fighting but it is certainly not a story in which women are marginalised or poorly represented.