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Review: Jojo Rabbit

Mel Brooks once said “Rhetoric does not get you anywhere, because Hitler and Mussolini are just as good at rhetoric. But if you can bring these people down with comedy, they stand no chance.”  It is this central idea that has been at the core of many a satire, including of course Brooks’ own The Producers. 

With writer/director/star Taika Waititi’s film Jojo Rabbit, Mel Brooks’ desire to have Adolf Hitler brought down with comedy is certainly fulfilled, but still, the question remains, is this appropriate? And is portraying the Nazis as childish imbeciles really responsible? Indeed these questions will inevitably arise anytime a satirical portrait of such a sensitive and serious historical time is lampooned, and they are worthy to discuss each time. 

In Jojo Rabbit, what we have is an undoubtedly clever and witty take-down of fascist madness, and yet it continues to be unclear whether or not this mockery actually accomplished anything. Does painting the Fuhrer as a clown really honor the victims of his regime and the Second World War?  And what message is being promoted by depicting the Nazis as buffoonish? Because although their ideology was absurd and worthy of condemnation (or ridicule), we can’t hide from the very serious nature of their actions and its consequences. 

Taika Waititi struggles to form a distinction between Jojo’s idealistic view of his Gestapo heroes and the actual reality of the Third Reich

In the film, we meet Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, an eager and good-natured German boy ready to join the Hitler Youth, where boys learn how to throw grenades and girls learn the importance of having Aryan children.  When alone he frequently finds himself in the company of his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler himself. The Fuhrer is here depicted as a bumbling moron, giving his young friend bad advice and the offer of cigarettes. 

Although the film is framed around the perspective of this zealous 10-year-old and the warped image he has developed from years of Nazi indoctrination, all we ever see are these childish images of the Nazis (which are not always figments of Jojo’s imagination). Taika Waititi struggles to form a distinction between Jojo’s idealistic view of his Gestapo heroes and the actual reality of the Third Reich, instead presenting all the characters (imaginative or not) as comical nitwits. An opportunity was here to balance between how Jojo sees the world and how murderous his idols really were; and yet we barely see the evil side, giving the impression that the Nazis really were just goofballs. 

Thus the greatest problem with Jojo Rabbit is not that it does a poor job in ridiculing Nazism; rather it is that it never sheds light at the very profound ramifications these “clowns” had on the world, dismissing them as merely ‘harmless” idiots. If only it were that simple…  

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As with The Producers, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Inglorious Basterds or last year’s The Death of Stalin, Jojo Rabbit effectively mocks and brings down its chosen historical despot, but does so without a reflective acknowledgment of the very real essence of its subject matter. A comedy on such an important period of modern history should in theory also be balanced with a contrite examination of fact, and a solemn duty to never forget or repeat. So while Jojo Rabbit has plenty of comedy, there’s little to no solemnity in it, and virtually no factual accuracy at all. It is effectively a grand work of fantasy, but the problem is we can’t ever allow ourselves to think Nazi Germany was solely a fantastical caricature. 

Sure Quentin Tarantino too created a caricature in Inglorious Basterds, but there were also plenty of somber scenes (the execution of the Dreyfus family, or the infamous tavern shootout for instance), reminding us that although these Nazi figures were comically demented, they should not be taken lightly. 

Taika Waititi has gone only for the satirical approach but has failed to juxtapose it with the necessary gravitas (or reminder) of the Nazis’ crimes. With the exception of a handful of scenes towards the end, the tone of Jojo Rabbit is lighthearted and whimsical. While it is fine to mock the Nazis, surely no film that is about them should ever be lighthearted and whimsical. 

And yet even the style of satire present in the film is most interesting, and perhaps quite troubling. In The Death of Stalin, for instance, the central characters didn’t necessarily act like circus nincompoops; rather director Armando Iannucci drew humor from the film’s depictions of the banal, and the internal squabbling of the politburo. As I wrote in my review of the filmthe humor doesn’t come from jokes or one-liners but simply from its depiction of these absurd everyday events. It is not unnaturally inserted into a serious historical drama.” 

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Quite the opposite is true of Jojo Rabbit, which is filled with over the top characterizations, jokes, and stereotypes. From a juvenile depiction of Hitler (who dines on unicorn heads), a flamboyant and fashion-savvy captain (Sam Rockwell), to a comically crazed youth camp instructor (Rebel Wilson), the characters in the movie are all clearly exaggerated to an extent that actually becomes a disservice to proper historical reflection.

And this is as far as the film goes with its take on Nazi Germany; a place filled with “lovable oafs” who also happened to hold absurd beliefs on Jews and racial purity. A great satire will absolutely knock characters off their pedestal, but should ultimately also serve as a reminder that we should never fail to recognize the other side of these absurd characters. 

Jojo Rabbit does have funny jokes, a charming and pleasing cast (especially Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo), and is undeniably audacious and clear in its mockery of Nazism. But we must remember that mocking Nazism is not enough, we must also honestly commemorate its black legacy. This film inserts outlandish comedy into a time and place that was far from comical and subsequently leaves us with no lasting message about the dangers of fascist ideology. The movie seems to be saying “Look, everyone, weren’t the Nazis just kooky!? Ha, haha”. Yes, they certainly were, but that’s only a limited view of the true story. With good intentions, Taika Waititi has crafted a film that suitably parodies Hitler and the Nazis, but does not properly contemplate their repercussions. Hence while Mel Brooks is right about bringing down self-proclaimed Gods by accentuating their absurdities, we cannot forget our responsibility to be truthful in our historical storytelling. Jojo Rabbit and the Nazis within it are indeed absurd, but let’s remember that the real ones were not.

SUMMARY
Jojo Rabbit mocks Nazism but fails to effectively reflect on the harrowing legacy its ideology has
PROS
Charming and pleasing cast
Clever mockery
CONS
Fails to balance humor with serious subject matter
No real moral message
2.5

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