Jojo Rabbit: life is not beautiful, but it is precious

Taika Waititi’s new film, Jojo Rabbit, is the fantastical story of a German boy in the final months of the Second World War, Jojo, who coexists with an unusual imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler. Much to the dismay of Jojo’s Hitler Youth fanaticism, Jojo learns that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa, a friend of his sister Inge, who has died.

Even before its release, the film has attracted much attention for Waititi’s interpretation as the imaginary Hitler, prompting the usual range of polemical responses. And we know how polemics work: having actually watched the film (or read the book) is optional and if you want my opinion I’ll give it to you.

As people finally get the chance to watch for themselves (though not in Australia where it is scheduled for release on Boxing Day …), I want to suggest that this film is more than an irreverent satire of Nazism. Forget the imaginary Hitler for a second. Waititi’s film is a song to critical thinking. Not quite an ode – too pompous. Not quite a hymn – way too serious. Something unassuming but with a heartbeat, that sways us to dance to our freedom amid the melancholia for the things we’ve lost and the things we’ll never know.

I wonder if Waititi is wondering why the world thinks his new film is a comedy, like he did when Boy became an international success: why did these people feel uplifted by the far-reaching legacies of colonialism? ‘Were they laughing at or with?[1] Laugh it up: we each cope with our traumas as we can, sometimes with humour and the metaphysical solace of the absurd, but that doesn’t make trauma endearing, it doesn’t mean you get to find us quaint or rejoice in our resilience.

The discourse around Jojo Rabbit so far reminds me closely of the debate that engulfed Life is beautiful when it first came out in 1998. Before hardly anyone had watched it, the film fell by the wayside while we slogged it out over whether comedy was ‘allowed’ to approach a subject like the Holocaust. If you liked it you were cavalier with history; if you did not, you were a censor. David Denby of the New Yorker earned the dubious honour of standing out from a crowded field by calling it ‘a benign form of Holocaust denial’, while on the other side people fell over themselves to acclaim it, in a frenzy that culminated with the 1999 Academy Awards and the live performance of its soundtrack in St Peter’s Square. Hardly anyone was spared what back then seemed like a polarised, sometime vicious debate: such was our innocence before we made trolling a way of life.

The uselessness of that debate means that today still we have to deal with the obvious: of course comedy has a place in dealing with traumatic histories; of course historical films are inaccurate, and ‘allowed’ to use accuracy and inaccuracy to shape their narratives as they like; of course historical fact is something else, established and argued by other means.

Comedy as a genre is neutral, like any other form of expression: it is a means to say what you will, nothing more, and what you say makes the difference, not how. Humour can be used to cope with trauma by deflecting or defusing it, and its history in dealing with the Holocaust is as old as the Nazi persecution of the Jews. One of the evidence of life and death in the Warsaw ghetto collected by the chroniclers of the Oyneg Shabbos were jokes: bitter comedy about one’s own conditions (‘We eat as if it were Yom Kippur, sleep in succahs, and dress as if it were Purim’); angry comedy about the murderers’ future demise (‘When am I going to die?’ Hitler asked his astrologer. ‘You’re going to die on a Jewish holiday’); absurd, unfunny comedy, because when morality is flipped on its head it is perfectly logical to make no sense at all. Humour was a form of resistance, not only by helping people cope, but by undermining the pomposity of fascist ideology.

During the war, propaganda cartoons – as well as Chaplin, Lubitsch, Lesley Howard, George Formby and whoever wrote ‘Hitler has only got one ball’ – all employed comedy to ridicule Hitler. After the war, mocking the Nazis became just as popular, from Italian-style comedies to Allo-Allo and Hogan’s Heroes, and Jurek Becker, Lina Wertmuller, Mel Brooks, Benigni, Peter Kassovitz and Radu Mihaileanu, all took different styles of comedy to Holocaust history. In 1993, Elijah Moshinsky adapted for television Jean Amery’s La Danse de Gengis Cohn, in which an old Nazi is haunted by the ghost of a Jewish cabaret artist. Some of these comic films evoked history; others exploited it. Some moved us to understand the unimaginable; others moved us to forget about it.

But is that not true of historical films, realist dramas, or any other genre? If the essence of the Holocaust defies representation, why should verisimilitude have more of a chance to capture it than abstraction? Indeed, if it is impossible to attempt to empathise with those who crossed the threshold of the camps, then our only chance may be to acknowledge the paradox of representation: refuse to provide audiences with the illusion of empathy, the obscene privilege of ‘identifying’ with the victims in full knowledge that the lights will go on again, for us.

Waititi ensures early on that we cannot mistake Jojo’s imaginary friend for Hitler, or the city he lives in for Nazi Germany. Yet he also ensures that we think about nationalism and indoctrination in significant and frightening ways: the collision of brazen fantasy and black-and-white footage is chilling, and if you want to understand Nazism’s popular appeal we should look not at Jojo but at the children lining Nuremberg’s streets. Waititi understands that accuracy and verisimilitude are different things, and that sometimes you need to abandon the latter for the best chance to achieve the former. By the time Jojo has danced to The Beatles, it seems a bit pointless to remark that the poster of the disembodied Hitler, with which Jojo dutifully plasters the walls of his town, was made for the 1928 elections and is therefore 15 years out of date. But if we want to convey the messianism of Germans’ cult of Hitler, that anachronism may serve us better than a more authentic detail. Or maybe Waititi just liked the look of it. By the same token, Inge’s birthday is 7 May – Germany’s surrender – is a deft and prophetic touch: in a true historical film, history is not a referent to be adhered to loyally, but a tool to be woven through the narrative.

The point is that there will be as many interpretations as viewers, and many persuasive arguments to be made, but the film deserves to be engaged on its own terms. We should be discussing whether Elsa’s defiance is a display of agency, or if instead the absence of menace about her strips her of agency, turning the only Jew in the story into a tired trope, a ‘learning opportunity’ for Jojo, as Richard Brody has suggested in The New Yorker. We should ponder Jojo’s absent father, and whether he evokes the First World War and Nazism’s patricidal totalitarianism or just Odin, Ricky Baker’s biological father and Alamein – Waititi’s reluctant men. They remind me of a joke that made the rounds in in the Warsaw ghetto: ‘Tell me Moyshe, what would you like to be if you were Hitler’s son?’ ‘An orphan’. There is plenty to consider in this rich and honest film without resorting to invective.

For my part, films that venture near the genocidal hubris of the Nazis seem to be divided between those that conceal and those that reveal, regardless of their genre or tone. There are films that offer a prosthetic closure and films that acknowledge the work required in elaborating trauma. ‘How do we clean eyes that have seen too much?’, asked Radu Mihaileanu in his Train de vie, a wonderful, tragic and funny Holocaust fable. I found Jojo Rabbit a little predictable, until Jojo sees, because make no mistake: he sees. Jojo witnesses the demise of the Master-race he had been told he belonged to; he grasps the perspective of the Other; he sees – crucially and in spite of his Mum’s own spoof goose-steps – what young Giosuè was shielded from in Life is beautiful.

Jo-Jo sees what he needs to make up his own mind, and we should follow his lead, whether in deciding if a film is offensive, inspiring or just slightly awkward, or in banishing tyrants from our heads.

[1] I wish to acknowledge Kiriana Haze for the reference to Smith and Mercier.

Image: still from Jojo Rabbit.

Giacomo Lichtner

Giacomo Lichtner is Associate Professor of History and Film at Victoria University of Wellington and serves on the board of the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand. He is the author of Film and the Shoah in France and Italy (2008, 2015) and Fascism in Italian Cinema Since 1945: the Politics and Aesthetics of Memory (2013).

More by Giacomo Lichtner ›

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  1. The longer anybody still thinks the National Socialist government needs some sort of exposure again makes me wonder why? Surely the lessons have been digested to the point of endless regurgitation. Might it not occur to -whoever- that -right now- humans act with despicable heinous behaviour which needs to be highlighted in the here and now. Because the longer this goes on, this fascination with National Socialism the longer the current compelling criminal behaviour of this human species is being deprived of the necessary attention for us to clean up what is en currant. Not passe.

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