Jojo Rabbit — Does a satiric lens reduce the importance of history?
Let’s talk about one of the important films of 2019, Jojo Rabbit. I want to say it’s a cerebral film, but it might dissuade you from watching it, so I will refrain from those kinds of remarks :) It was nominated for many awards and ended up winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Why should you watch it? Because it is an important film that examines big ideas via small events and wants you to expand your vision using the film as a jumping-off point. Films, I recently heard someone say, are not just a visual medium, they are an emotional medium, they convey emotions that stay with you well after they end.
There were countless films, memoirs, and novels of fictional, non-fictional, and semi-fictional nature made based on the events surrounding WWII and Hitler’s reign for it is a source ripe and rich with stories. History, in my opinion, is a lens, like the lens of a camera, the wielder of the lens controls the narrative, and when the lens passes from one to another, the perspective changes, and is also limited by its wielder, in its scope, its vision, and the depth. If someone lived during the time of the Titanic’s crash we can’t assume they are the authority of the story because their knowledge is limited to what they witnessed/experienced and the holes are filled with conjecture, hearsay, and mental gymnastics. English historian Simon Schama says “Historians are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness, however thorough or revealing their documentation. We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.”
In psychology, there’s a well-known phenomenon called “jeer pressure” that states that observing another person being ridiculed has an inhibiting effect on the observer. This jeer pressure (similar to “peer pressure”) is assumed to spring from evaluation apprehension — a concern on the part of the observer that he or she might also become a target of evaluation and ridicule. So many films use ridicule and satire as a means to express displeasure and moral judgment on certain world views or actions, best example of such a film would be Chaplin’s legendary film The Great Dictator, in which he ridiculed Hitler who was a living and breathing dictator at the time of the film’s release. The scope of his ridicule in my opinion was limited (no judgment on the film or his film making abilities), for the simple reason that he was not blessed with the knowledge of history, and the extent of the Nazi regime and its atrocities which were not public knowledge until long after the WWII.
Why do we need to care about yet another story about WWII? Jojo Rabbit is a fresh take on the now-familiar themes told from a child’s perspective, and unlike Anne Frank, or Eli Weisel who were Jewish, the protagonist Jojo is a German gentile, a kid, specifically a kid who is part of Hitler Youth. The comic relief in the film is presented in the form of Adolf Hitler, not the real one but an imaginary friend of Jojo who is seen and heard only by Jojo. He is cartoonish and childish and his knowledge and vocabulary are limited like that of a child, though he breaks character a few times and talks of things that are technically out of reach for Jojo. Close observation tells us that this Hitler’s lines are heavily influenced by propaganda that was imminent and widespread in Nazi Germany in the form of Stürmerkasten (public stands in cities featuring Der Stürmer, the propaganda paper of Nazis) and Hitler Youth teachings(ramblings?).
Jojo’s ideas are literally influenced by this buffoonish version of Adolf and it shows. The idea of mockery and satire fill the conversations throughout the film whenever adults speak with a tongue-in-cheek reverence towards the ideology, it’s as if they know what they are saying defies all logic, but they are obligated to speak in those terms. At first blush, this may not make sense to us, but if we really think about it, what choice does anyone have in an uptight dictatorship? If you want to get by, you need to blur the lines between true believers, opportunists, survivors, and sheep (If this reminds you of the present-day Republican party or Fox News pundits, you are not alone. Mind you, I am only speaking about the mindset of supporting your leader mindlessly not any other aspects).
Not many knew that Hitler Youth (a paramilitary organization for young boys) membership became mandatory as of 1936 for anyone who is considered an Aryan. Similarly, hating Jews, praising the Fuhrer was expected of you, whether you liked it or not and many Germans came to internalize the propaganda (fake news, anyone?) and genuinely believed the official narrative that Jews were the scourge of Germany and they were being sent away and didn’t want to delve deeper or believe the talk about Jews being killed in death camps until the evidence became insurmountable (only after the war ended in earnest). Since the movie is shot from Jojo’s perspective, it’s full of vibrant colors and even the camera angles elevate the adults, and of course the aforementioned over-the-top dialogue, but we never venture to actual battlefields or concentration/death camps because Jojo never has a chance to visit any of those places. His world is confined to his city, his mother, Elsa the Jewish girl who is hidden in his attic (by his mother), and his Hitler Youth camps. When he encounters violence, it’s personal, accidental, and inevitable (like when allies bomb the cities) or when Hitler youth are encouraged to participate in kamikaze missions as suicide bombers against invading Ivans.
Jojo Rabbit discusses the pervasive Jew-hatred and the ridiculous lies about Jews (how they use the blood of Aryan children to make bread etc., he is further mocked by Elsa with fantastical stories about jew “secrets’’ which he writes down with diffidence) that is taught to children, how dissidents are hanged at the edge of the town (near the ghetto to warn others), how a few Jews survived in war-ravaged towns, most importantly how children become men by following false idols in the absence of true father figures. Jojo Rabbit is a coming of age story that gives youth no chance to really grow up and war demands that they forgo their childhood. It’s a brilliant, dark comedy that explores how a hate-filled soul (with no apparent reason) can find redemption in the face of personal losses, failures, and missteps. Some critics have expressed concern that this normalizes Nazi behavior by painting some Nazis with a kinder brush (if you examine the scene where Sam Rockwell’s Klenzendorf character helps Jojo in the end to escape the allied soldiers, he is only helping a fellow Aryan, so it’s not really out of character for him, is it?). Some critics have also called this a simplistic feel-good film, I really don’t think they understand the film at all…. As I said before, this is shown from a child’s point of view, albeit a Hitler youth, he is still a child, his concepts of good and evil are derived from his world, and if you think he is blameless and indoctrinated against his will, the film doesn’t exonerate him, in fact in a few instances renders him as a pure asshole, when he repeatedly hurts Elsa by lying or when he is critical of his mother, who is a secret anti-nazi activist. By showing one jew who survives the war, if you think the film is trying to bill itself as a feel-good film, you have to understand that the weight of 6 million Jews who perished hangs on the surviving few.
Jojo Rabbit is based on a book called Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, a descendant of labor camp survivor and artist Guillaume Leunens. It was adapted to screen and directed by Taika Waititi, who directed the fun MCU outing Thor: Ragnarok. Waititi, who himself is of Jewish heritage said that the film was not supposed to be a gentle take on Nazi’s rather an attempt to present the events from a child’s perspective with a generous dose of comedy. He portrays the Adolf character in the movie in his goofy excellence, supported by an excellent cast including Scarlett Johanssen (nominated for a best-supporting actress Oscar), Sam Rockwell, and deliciously devilish Rebel Wilson. So much of the set pieces and detailing that captures the time period and history in motion has gone into the production design, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees, and requires a second viewing with copious amounts of pause/rewind. Waititi never uses unnecessary exposition to move the story forward or even pauses to explain the various officialdom or jargon we come across trusting your intelligence. A film like Jojo Rabbit cannot be compared with Schindler’s List but like I said history is a lens and this time it’s wielded by a child and we get to experience and emote with him, does that make everything rosy? No, he is marred by the same events to a different degree… The film does end on a positive but ambiguous note asking what’s next for these kids who are orphaned by the cause (now that the Third Reich is officially over) and orphaned by their loved ones, for their parents, siblings, and even their community support structure (in his case Hitler Youth) is decimated. It’s a must-watch for film lovers and people who like to understand events from multiple perspectives.
Written On Mar 15, 2020