I wish I was in the meeting when Taika Waititi pitched JoJo Rabbit. “So, it’s an adaptation of Christine Leunen’s novel Caging Skies. But really camp. Picture the final days of the Holocaust, but funny. I’ll play Hitler, but goofy, who is the imaginary best friend of a fanatical ten-year-old Nazi called Jojo who wants to kill the Jewish girl his mother is harbouring in the eaves of their house. I’ll need millions of dollars and total creative control.”
Don’t mention Hitler if you can avoid it, is a fairly standard rule when you’re telling jokes. But JoJo Rabbit is a 108-minute piss-take of Nazi Germany – and I loved every second. Not just for the slapstick comedy, and there is plenty of that, but for the absolute savage satire, the kind I haven’t seen in a while.
Recently, driving home to Albany, I re-listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History episode on the paradox of satire. Gladwell asked, can you laugh at something and also absolutely protest and abhor it? Waititi’s answer is big yes.
There were many moments in the cinema I felt close to tears, or that I’d been sucker-punched by satire. One minute, we’re laughing at the absurdity of Jojo and his imaginary friend Adolf describing Jewish people – “you can feel their horns” – the next, we’re seeing bodies hanging in a public square for resisting the Nazi regime and trying to protect Jewish people. Real satire makes you laugh the first time, then realise you could have just as easily cried.
This was a film about the way fanaticism and indoctrination works. It is about how absurd war and discrimination are. And often when we remember the tragedy of the Holocaust, we try and understand it in terms of places and numbers and statistics. However, we do not describe this period of history as totally absurd – which it was. Waititi does just that. We see camp guards who are annoyed that they are teaching children how to burn books instead of fighting for their country, we see a 10-year-old boy trying to write a book about the Jewish people so they are easier to spot and kill, and we see a son turned against his mother. While Jojo is the most enthusiastic Hitler Youth member you ever did meet, gunning to become Hitler’s personal guard, his mother is resisting the Nazi regime in every way she can without getting caught out by her own child. This is crazy. And it’s devastating. And it happened.
Maybe there were ten-year-old boys during the final days of the Third Reich who idolised Adolf Hitler. Maybe that made their relationship with their mum really complicated. But the language of children explaining decisions of war and discrimination can reveal just how childish and ridiculous the decisions behind fascist regimes can be.
The film finishes with a quote from Raina Maria Rilke, “Let everything happen to you. Beauty and Terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” Beauty and terror. Comedy and Tragedy. It’s all there in this stunning film.
5 burnt books out of 5.
Words by Katie McAllister
Katie is waiting for Nigella to reply to her email.
Image courtesy of Joshua Cahill.