Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Taika Waititi’s Au Revoir Moonrise Hidden Life of Jojo Rabbit Kingdom.

There are so many films and stories about the Holocaust, and the terrible pain and trauma inflicted upon the Jewish people, that it creates a kind of genre, with its own expectations and requirements. These stories can come in all forms. Some show the lasting pain through many generations, while some depict harrowing survival before and through World War II. Unique to this genre, I think, over any other, (including “action” war films) is the requirement of respect of the actual atrocity, the sheer amount of suffering it created, and the revelation that humanity is capable of producing and destroying in such unimaginable ways, that it shouldn’t, almost ever, be taken lightly. In other words, genocide is no laughing matter.

Contemporary to the rise of Nazism, even Charlie Chaplin fell into this problem, depicting a Hitler-like fascist as a farcical dolt, dancing with the world as a nearly weightless plaything like a naïve child might. But, to be fair, he made The Great Dictator in 1938 and 1939, before the true genocidal intentions of the Nazis were well understood. Back then, the first inclination from a comedian was to satirize power and its dire implications, and here in 2020, that approach apparently hasn’t changed much.

There’s no sign of a slowdown to this genre, many joining its ranks even recently. We have Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s violent, speculative history tale of a Jewish woman’s escape from death, hiding-in-plain-sight, and eventual ascent to destroy the entire Nazi leadership in a cinematic inferno. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel needs to be mentioned here, too, because its backdrop is a familiar history of European fascism, but with a fantasy layer about the loss of old-world opulence blanketed on top. Terence Malick’s latest, A Hidden Life, shows the complete arc of ideological indoctrination as a neutral farming town degrades into a small bastion of fascist nationalism. One of my favorite films, Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants, is easily part of this genre. A carefully told story about a children’s school in Nazi-occupied France. The film offers no easy answers, only observations of the depths of our humanity, and the broad spectrum of consequences that result from our actions on either end. So, after watching Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, yet another addition to this Holocaust genre, I’m stuck on what it adds, besides a bizarre tone of nonchalance towards almost every character’s involvement in this now well understood genocide from less than a hundred years ago. The film seems bold enough to have something to say, but that also seems to be: if people could just learn to love then they wouldn’t be compelled to hate.

The film starts with slow-motion comedic romps, Hitler Youth running through the woods, through a town, accompanied by the fun of The Beatles singing in German. The referential filmmaking begins right away. Jojo Rabbit is heavily indebted to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, both in style and substance. The Hitler Youth camp at the beginning is not unlike the Scout camp seen in Anderson’s film, planimetric style and bold colors all intact. The 60’s soundtrack, too, seems weirdly Andersonian. I’m not sure if it’s an homage, or admiration, or if it’s all an accident. Whatever the case, it’s a factor if you’re going to discuss the filmmaking. I like the look and sound of Jojo, but I also like Anderson’s signature style, so maybe that’s to be expected. Story-wise, Waititi was willing to go further than Anderson was in The Grand Budapest Hotel, depicting the death of a major character more directly than something we see in Budapest. This is an effective way to bring weight to the film. When you start with satire like this, funny because of the juxtaposition of fun and fascism, that when we finally find a moment reflecting truth and the historical reality we know, it’s disarming. This method is maybe more effective than many dramas that only keep one tone throughout. Jojo does this better than Budapest, but they both suffer from a Western need to pivot back to some wistful optimism, and only after a dodged death scene of a prominent white person offering resistance is finalized. In this genre specifically, this circling back disregards the reality so deeply, I don’t think it belongs in the genre. But it wants to be, and that’s the problem.

Jojo Rabbit is a heartfelt film, and it’s sweet, too, with an incredible amount of style and charm. But should those things be said about a Holocaust film? I don’t know. In the end, it’s not an observation of humanity, our depraved and selfless capabilities both, but a reductive statement that the lack of love leads to hate, and if we could just laugh together, as well as cry, then that would make all the difference. That’s not untrue generally, but it is untrue in this genre. Some filmmakers can be emotional, but they fear being a downer, but that’s an expectation in this genre. Otherwise, it’s just a comedy relying on the slightest historical knowledge to tell its story, with little regard for the reality of the people who lived and died through it all.

Could this be said for almost any genre? What exactly is “poverty porn” and what should we expect from our war films? Can a war film ever really depict war without glorifying it? All good questions that I don’t have the answers to. I’m only knowledgeable enough to discuss it, maybe, half-intelligently. But, when it comes to Holocaust films, or slavery films, or any films with genocide as their backdrop, I think it’s okay to feel uneasy about their depictions when they lack a certain respect for reality, even when we end up enjoying the experience. And when it’s a glossy, poppy experience like the one Jojo Rabbit offers, maybe we should question that unease even more.

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