Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit has been nominated for 6 Oscars, and has just won a Bafta, so, despite the very mixed reviews, it’s clearly appealing to many. For me, it brought to mind other well received films that were similarly muddled – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri for example. The Oscars often favour films which take on difficult issues while relying upon a hefty dose of sentimentality in their commitment to an optimistic perspective (The Green Book is another example). And we see a similarly sanitised quality at work in Jojo Rabbit, where the ‘little-kid cuteness and optimism’ (Bradshaw) brought to the film by its young protagonist denies the true horror of the Nazi regime. The various comic turns in the film accumulate to ensure that it fails as a whole ‘to attack or even really notice evil’ (Bradshaw), and Sam Rockwell’s performance in particular is interesting for that avoidance. Another amiable racist role for Rockwell – his part in Three Billboards the first in a run of such roles – he’s one of the comedy Nazis (Rebel Wilson is another), and once again using his inordinate charm to humanise a dubious character. Critic Helen Holmes noticed that some of Rockwell’s success as an actor was based upon award voters (Academy voters in the case of Three Billboards) who ‘find bigoted onscreen behavior to be moving to the point where it merits awards’, suggesting a ‘deep-seated problem that deserves to be unpacked’. And while it is specifically American characters that showcase both Rockwell’s aptitude for ‘good ol boys’ and an audience’s pleasure in seeing such characters rendered charming, in Jojo Rabbit, the film’s marshalling of Rockwell’s lovable eccentricity to sanitise a Nazi character still represents a certain lack of responsibility.

The film’s director, Taika Waititi, has talked eloquently about comedy as ‘a way of connecting audiences and delivering more profound messages by disarming them and opening them up to receive those messages.’ He argues that ‘[c]omedy is a way more powerful tool than just straight drama, because with drama, people tend to switch off or feel a sense of guilt, or leave feeling depressed … Often it doesn’t sit with them as much as a comedy does’ (Rose). This is true, but comedy’s power has to be managed carefully given the risk of it functioning as a whitewash – a way of defusing discomfort that, particularly in a week that commemorates the Holocaust, could more usefully be faced full-on. And in the era of Trump, humour’s capacity for rendering dubious people likeable is a significant problem (think of Sean Spicer for instance, whose egregious lies were normalised through the endearing gags made during his television appearances).

There is nothing wrong with using comedy to address Nazism (Mel Brook’s full-bloodedly satirical The Producers is often cited as the key exemplar here), but in trying to find a different – warmer – affective register for his satire (largely through the use of a child protagonist), Waititi’s film ultimately fails. He is clearly interested in ensuring a degree of sweetness to his comedy – Mark Kermode notices that his Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) combines comedy, tragedy and pathos into ‘a note-perfect blend.’ And that pursuit of a more diffuse satire is a worthy one, given the risk of complacency in ‘classic’ satire’s focus on an externalised, standardised object, which can deny any possible complicity on the part of the audience. Waititi has described Jojo Rabbit as ‘anti-hate satire’ and the film’s ‘sweetened’ satire might be seen as an attempt to secure fresh insight into how Nazism as a phenomenon was possible, the child’s perspective making it newly intimate. The documentary footage of the film’s opening credits overlaid with a Beatles soundtrack, for instance, draws a parallel between Beatlemania and the mass hysteria of the often very young audiences that greeted Hitler at his rallies, and suggests something of the overpowering charisma of his ideology. The potential of this opening in examining the banality of evil, is, however, not borne out by the rest of the film, and despite the sincerity of his intentions, Waititi’s use of comedy remains deeply problematic.

Bradshaw, Peter, ‘Jojo Rabbit review – Taika Waititi’s Hitler comedy is intensely unfunny,’ The Guardian, 20 Dec 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/dec/20/jojo-rabbit-review-taika-waititi-hitler-comedy

Kermode, Mark, ‘Jojo Rabbit review – down the rabbit hole with Hitler’ The Guardian, 5 Jan 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/jan/05/jojo-rabbit-review-taika-waititi-hitler-scarlett-johansson-sam-rockwell

Holmes, Helen, ‘Sam Rockwell Wants to Pivot Away From Playing Racists,’ Observer, 7 June 2019
https://observer.com/2019/06/sam-rockwell-playing-racists-pivot/

Rose, Steve, ‘Interview: Taika Waititi: ‘You don’t want to be directing kids with a swastika on your arm’, The Guardian, 26 Dec 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/dec/26/taika-waititi-flight-of-the-conchords-thor-ragnarok-jojo-rabbit-nazi-dictator

© Emma Sullivan 2020.

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