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Yes, Nazis Can Be Funny… Just Not in ‘Jojo Rabbit’

The question of whether Hitler, Nazis, and the Holocaust can be the subject of comedy has been a well-trodden and sometimes fraught  one over the years. 

Mel Brooks has addressed the subject much across the decades, in the many different editions of The Producers, his remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, and even in an entire documentary, 2016’s The Last Laugh, which was devoted entirely to that very question. 

Laughing at Nazis: An Ethical Question

Brooks, the comedy legend who wrote the song “Springtime for Hitler” for his movie The Producers in the 1960s and built a Tony-winning Broadway musical around it four decades later, in The Last Laugh documentary articulated a nuanced ethical position about the laughing-at-the-Nazis question: The Holocaust itself isn’t and cannot be funny, but certain other things can: Mockery of Hitler, the absurdity of Nazi ideology and, say, the idea of a couple of Broadway producers thinking they can scam their investors by making a play that extolls the Fuhrer. 

The Holocaust itself isn’t and cannot be funny, but certain other things can…

Others over the years have made similar attempts, with varying degrees of success. Sarah Silverman, for the first decade of her career, dined out on the incongruous juxtaposition of a sweet and prim-looking Jewish girl saying shocking things about rape, abortion, the Holocaust, and other such controversial subjects. 

Roberto Benigni’s 1998 Life is Beautiful found an inspirational story about a man in a Nazi death camp trying to convince his son the whole thing was a game. 

The key though, is to make it funny. Because if you take a swing on a topic like that and you miss, yikes. 

Silly ‘Rabbit’

I thought of that formulation a lot when I saw Jojo Rabbit, director Taika Waititi’s new film, billed as an “anti-hate satire.” Jojo Rabbit comes in on the right side of Brooks’ formulation. But that doesn’t mean it delivers, because it certainly does not. 

Waititi’s film, adapted by the director from author Christine Leunens’ Caging Skies, is set in a German town in the waning days of World War II. 

Ten-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is essentially a Nazi fanboy. He attends a Hitler Youth camp, has Nazi posters on his walls, and even has Hitler himself (played by Waititi, the director) as his imaginary friend. There are hints, however, that Jojo isn’t quite cut out for the Nazi life, such as when he’s asked to kill a rabbit and can’t bring himself to do it. 

It doesn’t really have much of note to say about the nature of prejudice, about youth radicalization, or, most egregiously, about the way these ideologies have made a recent, unfortunate comeback. 

This changes, however, when Jojo learns that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a Jewish teenage girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls of their home. The two get to know each other, Jojo starts to develop feelings, and that, along with tragic events, lead him to question all that he had believed up until that point. 

I don’t reject Jojo Rabbit because it crosses lines, or because I object to a satirical movie being made on this subject matter. I reject it because the concept just plain doesn’t work. It doesn’t really have much of note to say about the nature of prejudice, about youth radicalization, or, most egregiously, about the way these ideologies have made a recent, unfortunate comeback. 

Also, the film never quite gets the tone right. It never feels like there’s a Holocaust going on at the time, and while it depicts the Nazis (led by Sam Rockwell) as buffoons, it’s not really done in such a way that lands. And I’m not exactly sure what the film is satirizing. Nazism? Hitler himself? Those who indoctrinate children? Lubitsch did it better, all way back in 1942, with the original To Be or Not to Be, as did Brooks in multiple projects. 



Just Wasn’t Made for These Times

Jojo Rabbit also reminded me, and not in a good way, of Green Book. The idea of someone who’s bigoted being rapidly cured of their bigotry through exposure to one person from a group that they’re supposed to hate just isn’t as heartwarming or compelling to me as it seems to be to a lot of other people. 

I also feel like the movie would have been better without the imaginary Hitler. In fact, I was a lot more interested in Elsa’s story than Jojo’s. 

Jojo Rabbit also reminded me, and not in a good way, of Green Book

And that’s because of a beautiful, heartbreaking performance from New Zealand actress Thomasin Mackenzie as Elsa, the hidden Jew. It’s a character that gets beyond the Anne Frank iconography, and the actress, best known for last year’s Leave No Trace, plays the part with just the right amount of understatedness. 

Among the rest of the cast, Rebel Wilson has her moments as a Nazi functionary, although Stephen Merchant’s part of a Jew-hunter feels like a pale knockoff of Christoph Waltz’s Hans Lanza in Inglorious Basterds. 

Jojo Rabbit tells a child’s-eye view of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, attempting to splice in some humor and social commentary. While it doesn’t fail for the same reason this sort of stuff usually does, fail it does.

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