Ellements of Film: Jojo Rabbit


Warning, this will have spoilers for Jojo Rabbit. Not too many actually, but still. Spoilers. You have been warned.

I have been unspeakably excited to see Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit since I first heard about it nearly a year ago. I’ve been loving Waititi’s work, and I dearly wanted to see two things: one, Waititi (a Polynesian Jew) playing Adolf Hitler, and two, modern proof to shove down the throat of any anti-PC crusader who whines, “You couldn’t make a Mel Brooks movie today.” I was not disappointed.

Almost everything that I could say about my hatred of the argument, “You couldn’t make a Mel Brooks movie today” is covered better than I ever could by this Lindsay Ellis video, which I strongly encourage everyone to watch. The tl;dr version is that satire is a fine line to walk—it has to be obvious as satire, it has to be unavailable for appropriation by the subject of its satire, and it has to represent harmful ideas in order to skewer them without simply replicating them. I want to talk about those points, and how I think Waititi meets them in this work.

First, that it has to be obvious as satire. Ellis talks about how things that are meant to be satire wind up coming across as straight if the target of the satire or the audience doesn’t understand the satire, or just looks at it and thinks, “Yeah, that’s cool.” When you’re talking about Nazis, you can accidentally make them too lovable and identifiable (Aw, Nazis. They’re Just Like Us), you can accidentally make them too ridiculous (Why would anyone take these “Nazis” seriously? They’re obviously such buffoons) or you can make them too monstrous (Why would anyone become a Nazi? They’re so evil.)

And indeed, some critics have said that Waititi made the Nazis in his film fall into these traps—there are some very fun characters and tons of anachronisms, there are a lot of moments where the Nazis are idiotic or the subjects of slapstick accidents, and there’s at least one cartoonishly evil Nazi who took a quick break from asking Indiana Jones where he left the artifact in order to rifle through someone’s home. But I don’t think that Jojo Rabbit is ever caught completely in any of these traps. In a way that (in my opinion) exceeds even Mel Brooks’ The Producers, Waititi shows that the Nazis are, in fact, human and mockable. And some of them could be occasionally nice, or funny, or silly. The film showcases the buffoonery of the Third Reich and how their beliefs are often hollow. But, importantly, it shows that this does not make the Nazis any less dangerous. And this is the vital point that I think a lot of the negative reviewers of the movie are overlooking. Normally, I would agree with the detractors that “actually there were some nice Nazis, too” is the kind of terrible, “good people on both sides” messaging that we don’t really need right now. But this film acknowledges that “nice Nazis” can exist, but then emphasizes, “But Nazis will still fucking murder you.” And not just the cartoonishly evil Nazi—all the Nazis. Even the “nice” Nazis. Even the old lady neighbor Nazis. Even the children. They are silly and buffoonish and human and relatable and evil and dangerous.

I also want to look at the idea of how a proper critique should be unavailable for appropriation by the subject of satire. Ellis talks about the way that some drama films that have directly represented the evils of Nazism have wound up being appropriated by neo-Nazis because they think that the depiction makes them look cool (like American History X). And I promise you, no alt-right edgelord is going to look at Jojo Rabbit and think, “That movie makes me look cool.” Waititi deliberately refused to learn literally anything about how Hitler spoke or acted. This is whatever the opposite of Method Acting is. Waititi’s totally out there Hitler is an aspect of the film that some people have found bad, but I think is the most hilarious thing in the world. And fitting, because this isn’t Real Hitler. It is a ten-year-old-boy’s imagined best friend version of Hitler. And at no point does Waititi’s Hitler, or any of the Nazis in the film, do anything that makes Nazis look cool. Even the one moment that could fall into that, Captain K’s glam rock “invasion uniform” moment is still purposefully deflated by having his subordinate carrying a goddamn gramophone around behind him (and by being defeated basically seconds later).

And finally, the last and hardest point—depicting an oppressor without replicating the oppression. When people claim, “You couldn’t make a Mel Brooks movie today,” what they are really saying is that they cannot imagine a film that passes that last element—they cannot imagine a satire that tackles something like the Nazis without breaking taboos about appropriate depictions of marginalized groups. And that’s what I think Waititi did very well. You can talk about marginalized people without making the marginalized people the butt of the joke. You can punch up, rather than down, even about one of the darkest periods in history. And the majority of this film is punching up.

However, it does have some moments where it punches down, or at least could be seen to punch down. And honestly, I feel like I don’t have a lot of room to speak about those moments. The film does go out of its way to come up with literally dehumanizing concepts of Jews, ranging from “they have horns” to “A Jewish man once lay with a fish and that’s why Jewish people have scales” to “there is a literal Satan who is sitting in a Jewish person’s head and controlling them.” I’d like to think that these depictions are so outlandish and so disconnected from some of the actual, historical stereotypes of Jewish people, but… I also don’t have a lot of faith in humanity at the moment. So it’s entirely possible that these depictions will not come off as ridiculous satire of racist ideology, and will instead just be hurtful anti-Semitism. And if anyone feels hurt by this, they have the right to feel so. I can’t tell anyone how to feel about this stuff, and “Well the director is Jewish” works about as much as “Well my one black friend says I can tell that joke” when defending something against claims of being offensive.

This potential anti-Semitism is really the only critique I’ve seen that I think has full merit, whereas other critiques seem (to me) to be missing the point of the film. Some of the criticism of Jojo Rabbit points towards the fact that the film doesn’t engage much with the actual tenets of Nazi ideology. And it’s true, the film really doesn’t. The only thing that really gets any play is “Jews are bad, Hitler is good” which are obviously part of being a Nazi, but certainly not a deep take. But I think that’s not necessarily because Waititi’s film is “cowardly” or is afraid to push certain buttons—it’s because I think that the film is not so much about Nazis, as it is about how someone becomes a Nazi. As well as how someone, hopefully, ceases being a Nazi. It is a film about radicalization and de-radicalization on the small scale rather than the large.

Jojo is the 1945 version of a normie who is being radicalized. He fits a lot of the classic signs of our modern day alt-right—he’s lonely, he considers himself unattractive, he’s adrift after experiencing a loss, he feels like he’s lacking male support, he’s looking outward to find someone or something to blame for his problems, and looking outward for validation.  When Jojo speaks with Elsa, she tells him that he’s not a Nazi, he’s just a little boy that likes to dress up in costumes and wants to join a club. And… yeah. He’s spouting racist rhetoric but he doesn’t fully understand it, he just understands that almost everyone around him is part of it. (Not that this is not to let him off for trying to be a Nazi, or to say that it isn’t still very bad to try and be a Nazi.) In a scene of book burning, you see Jojo’s enthusiasm for the activity fade until he sees how happy and active everyone else is as they burn the books, and this gets Jojo back into things. This desire for an identity and sense of belonging is where I think Waititi’s performance as imaginary Hitler really shines. “Imaginary best friend Hitler” is the perfect personification of what a modern alt-right person or a young would-be Nazi is looking for when they join that type of movement. Waititi’s Hitler tells Jojo that he’s cool, that he’s handsome, that he’s sneaky and sly instead of cowardly, that he’s awesome, that he’s got this. Hitler gets Jojo pumped up, he consoles him when he’s sad, and he’s there for him when he’s lonely. Jojo sees being a Nazi as the path to being accepted—he dreams about being in Hitler’s main guard. He still is absorbing Nazi ideology, but the ideology is attractive partly because it comes with a group identity.

When Jojo starts becoming better friends with Elsa, Imaginary Hitler starts acting more like actual Hitler—spouting rhetoric, starting to glower and snarl. He also becomes possessive of Jojo and Jojo’s time. This can serve two purposes—first, showing Jojo seeing his “idol” in a clearer light, and also, showing how hollow and conditional the love and acceptance of a radicalized group can be. Whereas an actual friend would likely be happy for Jojo to be happier, Imaginary Hitler/the Nazis/any right-wing group needs their followers to be unhappy, to be isolated, and to be upset. Jojo becoming stable and content without the influence of any Nazi groups is dangerous to the continuance of the Nazi ideology. When he is a step removed, he can begin to see flaws in the organization, and begin to see the way his life can work outside of that group. We don’t really get to see him get to come to a full reckoning with his past actions (probably at least partly because he is ten) but we do watch him start to come to terms with what Nazi ideology leads to—largely, a lot of a death.

One of the questions the film asks is, what do you do if your own child is being radicalized? Especially if that radicalization fits the mainstream culture better than your own beliefs? In one of the most poignant moments of the film, Jojo’s mother Rosie is speaking to Elsa, the Jewish girl that she is hiding in her home. She is warning her to be more careful and quiet because she is worried that her own 10-year-old son, Jojo, would turn Elsa in if he found out about her. Tears shining in her eyes, she talks about how she thinks the “real” Jojo is still in there somewhere, behind the fanaticism. She does her best to counter-program him (as much as she can in a fascist police state where her own pre-teen could and potentially would turn her in for traitorous statements) emphasizing the values of love and bravery. Some people see this as a shallow, hippy-dippy moral of the movie, “All you need is love, man.” I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as the only weapon that Jojo’s mother had against the overwhelming messages of the Nazi party and German culture at the time. What can you do for someone who is radicalized besides try to remind them of what they are missing? What can you do when the person you are afraid of is your own child? What can you do when society is contradicting your role as a parent?  The answer that Jojo Rabbit seems to give is, keep loving them, but don’t let them get away with terrible things. Confront their beliefs. Point out holes. Emphasize the superiority of positivity rather than negativity. Do what you need to do to keep yourself safe. That seems like pretty sound advice to me.

Perhaps more importantly, it gives a blueprint for someone who is in the process of being radicalized to de-program themselves. The big things? Connect with someone outside of your echo chamber. Question the fundamental beliefs of the group you are a part of. Take stock of who is being hurt by what you, and they, are doing. If a 10-year-old can de-Nazi himself, so can you!

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is of the main characters of Jojo Rabbit jumping through the air with the words “Ellements of Film” superimposed.

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