In 2019, a year when most people try their hardest not to offend, not to make light of racism and cruelty, Taika Waititi’s Hitler comedy “Jojo Rabbit” should not work. To make a drama about Nazi Germany is one thing, but to make a film about that same era of history that is intentionally comedic — that wants its audience to laugh — is another thing entirely. The very thought of it is uncomfortable. There is arguably nothing more horrific than the actions of Adolf Hitler, and there is arguably nothing less funny.
Yet “Jojo Rabbit” works, and it definitely made me laugh. But it wasn’t a mindless, simple kind of laughter. It was laughter with substance, with darkness, laughter that drew attention to itself, laughter that forced me into a painful awareness of why, precisely, I was laughing at a movie about Nazism. “Jojo Rabbit” straddles the dangerously thin line that divides comedy and tragedy with remarkable grace, and the tension that builds through this balance makes watching the film utterly strange and eye-opening.
“Jojo Rabbit” is the nickname of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis, debut), a ten-year old boy growing up in Nazi Germany, who is thrown out of a Hitler Youth training camp for refusing to kill a rabbit. When he returns home to his mother (Scarlett Johansson, “Under the Skin”), who he learns is not only critical of Hitler but is in fact hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie, “Leave No Trace”) inside their house, Jojo is forced to reconsider his own beliefs and his own sense of belonging. His imaginary friend Hitler, tellingly played by Waititi, a Maori and Jewish man, doesn’t make things any easier.
But what is “Jojo Rabbit” really about, and why is it so uncomfortable to watch? Simply put, “Jojo Rabbit” is about us. It is about how children learn to hate, and how these children, conditioned to hate, grow up to run our governments. It is about the allure of discrimination, its power to unite and foster communities and make us feel like we belong somewhere. Jojo doesn’t actually hate Jews — he thinks he hate Jews because his role models do, because it is the sentiment his entire community is built around. Elsa, the aforementioned Jewish girl, even tells him, “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten-year old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”
Isn’t this exactly what is happening right now? Alt-right extremist groups built on racist hate market themselves to young, vulnerable, lonely people who feel forgotten by the world. Though there is no legitimate excuse for participating in these groups and playing a role in acting out their agendas, “Jojo Rabbit” reminds us that these people are, like us, human humans whose evil is not innate, but taught. And only by understanding where they are coming from can we move forward.
Even if this is the case, isn’t analogizing our current social situation to Nazism a tad extreme? Maybe even insensitive? In asking this question, I’m reminded of what happened earlier this year when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote a tweet calling the detention centers at the US-Mexico border “concentration camps,” in doing so drawing a direct parallel between the current political administration and Nazi Germany. Her analogy received immense backlash but equally immense support, with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history professor Rachel Ida Buff affirming AOC’s statement as “absolutely” accurate in Newsweek. In explicitly linking its subject matter to the social climate of 2019, does “Jojo Rabbit” exaggerate our situation to the point of becoming offensive, or is the film simply calling it what it is?
Maybe the complexity of the questions it compels us to ask is what makes “Jojo Rabbit” such a bizarre, unsettling viewing experience. Maybe my laughter was a kind of defense mechanism, an awkward response to my own discomfort and newfound cognizance of the unacknowledged evil we live among every day. Yet, despite the darkness it addresses and the awful, uncomfortable things it forced me to ponder, “Jojo Rabbit” is ultimately an optimistic movie, affirming that no one, not even a ten-year-old Nazi youth, is irredeemable. I can’t think of a message for the people of 2019 more comforting or more uplifting than that.