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Jojo Rabbit

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[This review was originally posted on my blog.]

I’ve grown up with the Holocaust, and with fiction about the Holocaust. The tone and tenor of these stories has changed with my age, and with the people who exposed me to them—at school, for example, the emphasis was very much on bleak-yet-ultimately-inspirational stories of survival, usually of people who went through the camps. But even allowing for those factors, it feels as if, over my lifetime, there has been a change in how popular culture approaches the Holocaust. Bleak is out; sentimental is in. Inspiration has turned into kitsch. Everyone is looking for a new angle, and distressingly often that means prioritizing the experiences of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, or at least the people on the side of those perpetrators, over that of its victims.

All of which is to say that I greeted the news that Taika Waititi, cashing in his “one for me” card after delivering a smash hit with Thor: Ragnarok and reinvigorating its corner of the MCU, was going to make a Holocaust comedy about a little boy who is an avid Nazi and whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, with no small amount of skepticism. Far from irreverent and fresh, such a premise sounded like yet more desperate scrambling for something new to say about a topic that has been covered too many times, long ago ceasing to yield anything of value. What is there to say about life under Nazism that can only be said by having Waititi don a tiny mustache and an SS uniform and cracking jokes?

Still, I have enough respect for Waititi—and the reviews of Jojo Rabbit have been sufficiently good—that I expected there to be, at the very least, something to argue with here. An attitude that I might disagree with, but nevertheless respect. Instead the film is disappointingly insipid: scattershot in its approach to its difficult subject matter, inconsistent in its tone, and gesturing vaguely at various ideas without bothering to develop them. That’s not to say that Jojo Rabbit is a bad movie—it might be easier to talk about if it was. But, unsurprisingly given Waititi’s involvement, it is a thoroughly entertaining piece of filmmaking, the kind you can enjoy a great deal so long as you don’t think about it too much. There are good gags and fine performances. The plot moves at a steady clip, and the war scenes, when they arrive, are effective and scary. Most importantly, there is a veneer of coolness—that outrageous premise! The colorful, stylish production design, so different from the drab grayness of most WWII movies! The delightful soundtrack, full of German-language covers of The Beatles and David Bowie!—that helps to obscure just how fundamentally middlebrow Jojo Rabbit actually is. How shallow its provocations are. How little it ends up having to say.

Two moments sum up, to me, the missed opportunities and disappointing choices that run through this film. Early in the movie, ten-year-old protagonist Johannes “Jojo” Betzler accidentally blows himself up with a grenade and is left disfigured. Everyone comments on how ugly Jojo now looks, but the film itself chickens out. Jojo’s scars are barely visible, and do nothing to mar Roman Griffin Davis’s angelic (one might say, Aryan) good looks. When Jojo recovers from his injuries, he accompanies his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) to the square of the small German town where they live. There, they both regard the hanging bodies of several people who have been strung up by the Gestapo (“what did they do?” Jojo asks. “What they could”, Rosie answers). The camera lingers for an abnormally long moment on a hanging woman’s shoes. By the second time that it later does the same thing with Rosie’s shoes, making sure we notice their distinctive color and pattern, it’s so obvious what is going to happen to her, and how Jojo is going to find out about it, that the film becomes little more than a waiting game. And that’s Jojo Rabbit in a nutshell: half-assing its core concepts, and trying to compensate for that by delivering them with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

The central comedic conceit of Jojo Rabbit is that Jojo, a timid, insecure boy who lives alone with his mother (his father was conscripted and sent to fight in Italy, but hasn’t been heard from in years and is rumored to have defected) is desperate to prove himself a loyal Nazi and a strong fighter for the motherland. This despite the fact that not only the Hitler in his head—who, filtered through the sensibilities of a child, boasts about eating unicorn heads and acts terrified of Jews—but the real Nazis around him repeatedly fail to live up to the ideals of the Third Reich, and demonstrate the absurdity of those values at every turn. Hitler himself actually ends up playing a rather small role in the movie—perhaps because Waititi realized that this is a one-note gag with very little to say. Most of the jokes end up revolving around the inherent ridiculousness of the summer-camp-cum-indoctrination-program that Jojo eagerly participates in and fails out of. Classes include how to recognize a Jew by their horns and forked tongue, and such sight gags as a troupe of equipment-laden would-be soldiers jumping into a swimming pool for water training, and promptly beginning to drown.

There are some solid comedic notes in these scenes—Sam Rockwell is quite good as a German army officer who clearly realizes not only how absurd his charge, to train children to fight for the motherland, is, but what it says about the progress of the war. And Rebel Wilson gives some excellent deliveries of lines such as “I’ve given eighteen babies to Germany”, or a scene in which she introduces Jojo to “the clones”, a troupe of identical, white-blond children. (Though, and in a fairly typical problem for this film, Wilson seems to be acting in a completely different movie than the rest of the cast, one that is more straightforwardly absurdist.) A particularly strong throughline involves Jojo’s best friend Yorki (Archie Yates), who, despite his tender age, moves up through the ranks of the SS, finally ending up in the middle of a battle against the Allied forces. (Not to worry, he survives; this is definitely not the sort of movie that would kill a ten-year-old, even if doing so might have made for better comedy.)

It’s all funny enough, but never gives us an answer to the obvious question raised by such a project: what is this all for? What is Jojo Rabbit saying with its mockery that the audience didn’t already know? What tools is it giving us with it? There’s nothing wrong with mocking Nazis, obviously, but it’s also not particularly novel—Charlie Chaplin did it while they were still in power (though he later regretted this, and stated that if he’d known about the death camps, The Great Dictator would never have been made). And despite seeing itself as provocative and rude, Jojo Rabbit‘s Nazi jokes are tired and familiar—a lot of emphasis on the bumbling of the would-be master-race; gags about inefficiency and incoherent orders from the brass that you’d find in any army comedy; and the obligatory gay joke. They often verge on minimizing the danger that the real Nazis posed, missing—or perhaps ignoring—the simple fact that it doesn’t matter if the soldier holding you at gunpoint doesn’t live up to the Aryan ideal, so long as they still have the gun.

It’s a treasured belief among liberals that mocking something, exposing its ridiculousness, is a surefire method of defeating it. But the real Nazis were no less ridiculous than the ones in the movie, and they still killed millions of people before the concerted efforts of multiple armies could stop them. The last few years have, in fact, taught us some important lessons about how fascism and authoritarianism weaponize ridiculousness, using it to dismantle the very concepts of truth and reason. Leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson use humor to make themselves look harmless, and then, once they’ve got the power they wanted, brazenly dare anyone to care that they are obviously absurd. There’s a reason that Sartre’s famous quote about the futility of arguing with anti-semites has been getting such a workout in recent years, and it applies just as well to other varieties of fascism:

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.

Fascism can’t be defeated by mockery any more than it can be defeated by debate, because in its essence it is the antithesis of these things. Fascism is the belief that might makes right, so by definition, someone who is powerful can’t be made to look ridiculous, or wrong, or stupid, because they define reality through their power. To the people susceptible to fascist rhetoric, the tradeoff they’re being offered is quite simple and alluring: give up your grasp on reality and accept our fake truth instead, proclaim loudly and despite all available evidence that Donald Trump is a stable genius, that Boris Johnson is a man of the people, that Adolf Hitler is leading his people to greatness, and in exchange you get to share in that same power. People might correctly point out that you’re just as ridiculous as the leaders you’ve chosen to follow, but how clever are they going to look when you string them up in the town square?

There’s obviously room for comedy about societies like this and what it’s like to live in them. Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin was a brilliant example, hilariously capturing a world in which reality itself is malleable according to whoever’s in charge and whatever narrative they want to promulgate. It was also genuinely terrifying, revealing the primal fear that lay just beneath the surface of its characters’ nimble acceptance of the truth of the day. Jojo Rabbit is not that kind of movie. It wants, ultimately, to be uplifting. But even so, it misses so many opportunities to use its comedy to achieve that end. Jojo, for example, never actually has a moment of realizing how ridiculous the people and creed he’s admired are. He ends up rejecting Nazism because he learns better, but the gags that the film makes about Rockwell and Wilson’s characters go over his head. His final confrontation with Hitler—which happens after the real Hitler’s suicide—still treats the führer like a figure of authority and power. Jojo rebels against him, but he never rejects the premise of Hitler’s seriousness.

Instead, the heart of the film lies not in its comedy, but in a rather cloying story in which Jojo discovers that Rosie has hidden a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in the crawlspace in their house. The genesis of all this appears to be that Waititi has adapted a 2004 novel, Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, which tells this rather familiar story in a completely serious emotional register, and added to it the comedic components, including fantasy Hitler. The result has been to underserve both the comedy and the melodrama. Despite its familiarity, there are some charms to this storyline—Elsa herself is an engaging character, frequently embittered and despairing, but also determined to stay alive and refreshingly angry at the people who have killed her family and turned her into a fugitive. The sniping, adversarial relationship she develops with Jojo (who is persuaded to keep her presence in the house a secret in order to protect his mother) is partly a genuine, furious clash of ideologies, partly an older sister effortlessly batting away the childish pronouncements of a younger brother who can never really catch up to her. There’s some complexity to be found in the fact that Jojo is, at one of the same time, so terrifyingly dangerous to Elsa, and so obviously beneath her that his threats are almost a distraction from the real danger she’s in.

None of this, however, can entirely distract from the simple fact that when you boil it down, Jojo Rabbit is that tired, problematic trope, a story about a person who learns not to be racist by meeting one of the people he was racist against. Helpless to do anything about the presence of a hateful Jew in his house, Jojo decides to interrogate Elsa about her race in order to compile a definitive primer revealing the secrets of Jews and how to defeat them. Elsa, who is bored, and amused by Jojo’s ignorance, plays along, cheerfully confirming that Jews drink blood and sleep suspended from the ceiling. It’s through these sessions that Jojo learns to see Elsa’s humanity, and to feel horror at the possibility that she might be taken away and killed. When push comes to shove, he chooses to protect her rather than do his patriotic duty as a Nazi.

The problem here (well, one of the problems) is that the idea that Jews are a mysterious alien species to Jojo, people he’s never met—and that he is thus open to recognizing their humanity once he does meet one—doesn’t hold any water. If there were no Jews in Jojo’s town, Elsa wouldn’t be there. But we’re told that she was friends with his deceased sister, and that she ran away from the train station when the Jews were transported. So Jojo would have had to grow up with Jews in his life. They would have been his classmates, his neighbors, the local shopkeepers. And then they would have disappeared. When he talks about Jews as monsters with mind-control powers, he would have to have specific people in mind. And yet Jojo Rabbit insists that this isn’t the case, that Elsa is the first Jew Jojo has ever had the opportunity to interact with.

This isn’t simply a plot hole. It’s the film making things easy for itself and refusing to face up to the full ugliness of what it means to be a Nazi. The Germans who bought into Hitler’s race theory and approved, even if only tacitly, of the disenfranchisement, transportation, and extermination of Jews weren’t imagining some unseen, unknown menace. They were thinking of people they knew, people they had lived alongside. And they signed up for it anyway. One downside to the film’s excellent production design is that its scenery reminded me forcefully of pictures my aunt has brought back from her visits to Dortmund, the town where her grandparents, my great-grandparents, lived and were transported to their deaths from. The story of Dortmund isn’t one of Germans being tricked into hating Jews because they didn’t know any better. It’s of Germans standing by—or actively cheering—as their neighbors were dispossessed and disappeared.

When Jojo Rabbit refuses to acknowledge what it would mean for Jojo to believe in race theory, it sugarcoats that ugly reality in service of its need to make Jojo’s redemption as easy as possible—which it has anyway already done, by focusing its tale of deradicalization on a child. Earlier in the film, Rosie complains to Elsa that her son has been brainwashed, and that she can only hope that once the war is over he will return to his senses. But the Jojo we meet isn’t some radicalized bigot. As Elsa herself says, he isn’t a Nazi except in the sense that he desperately wants to belong and to feel strong. The premise of the film isn’t that meeting Elsa deradicalizes him, but that he was never that bad to begin with. Which, again, leaves me wondering what the point of the entire exercise was.

It’s particularly unfortunate because, right at the outer edges of Jojo’s story, there’s a genuinely interesting, challenging one going on that the film gives us only brief glimpses of. I rolled my eyes a little when Johansson’s performance in Jojo Rabbit started generating award buzz—it sounded like a typical case of a famous actress being lauded for a nothing mom role. But the truth is that she’s excellent here, and has been given the film’s most fascinating, complex character. Rosie is a free-thinker who is starting to realize that her life has turned out more conventional than she’d planned, and that her refusal to conform means nothing if she can’t do something about the horror that her country has plunged itself—and the world—into. She’s a woman who has suffered greatly—a dead daughter, a missing husband, a troubled son—and there are some fantastic scenes illustrating the emotional toll that these losses, and her responsibility for Jojo, have taken on her. But Rosie nevertheless holds on to her joy at being alive. That joy isn’t naive, or rooted in a denial of reality. Rather, it is an act of defiance, which makes a more powerful anti-fascist statement than any of the film’s mockery of its Nazi characters—a refusal to be made cruel and dejected by a world that has turned into a nightmare. “Welcome home, boys! Go kiss your mothers!”, Rosie cheerfully calls out to a truck full of defeated, injured soldiers headed into town, and when asked what she’ll do when the war ends, she answers, “dance”, even as she lessens her odds of reaching that day by hiding Elsa, and leaving messages of defiance around the town. It’s not the sort of story one tends to see about this period, and I couldn’t help but wish that it was the story Jojo Rabbit had chosen to tell.

Nearly eighty years after they shattered the world, the Holocaust and Nazism have turned into symbols whose meaning can often feel empty, a way of distilling good and evil that often leaves out their actual substance. It’s easier to feel sorry for victims of the Holocaust than for children in concentration camps on the US border; easier to hiss and boo at Nazi soldiers than to ask where the voices calling for the annexation of the Palestinian territories are leading us. It seems to me that if you’re going to tell a story about this period, going to use these symbols, you had better have something new and vital to say with them. Had better have come up with a way to cut through the thick layer of accumulated cultural associations to the real, raw truth within. Had better, at the very least, have some really good, cutting jokes. Jojo Rabbit has none of these things. It’s yet another story telling us that hate is bad and that learning to see the humanity of others is good, and which clearly doesn’t realize that couching that (valid, important) message in the terms of Nazism and the Holocaust only makes it weaker and easier to ignore. Adolf Hitler has lain unmourned in his unmarked grave for seventy-five years. Laughing at him is no challenge. But Donald Trump is still in the White House, and no amount of jokes you crack about him will change that. If you can write a comedy that acknowledges this bleak truth, and gives us tools to fight it, then you’ll have done something of value.

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