Jojo Rabbit: What Happens When We Don’t Care

Jojo Rabbit, released late 2019 to much fanfare and about as much discourse is the story of a 10 year old German boy and aspiring Hitler Youth member who has an imaginary friend in the form of Adolf Hitler finding a Jewish girl living in his attic. While from the outset tackling incredibly heavy subjects, the direction and script from New Zealand indie darling Taika Waititi (adapted from Christine Leunens' Caging Skies) create an atmosphere closer to Moonrise Kingdom than Schindler’s list. It’s a strange approach that has turned a number of people away from the jump, not a reaction I would begrudge considering how the film almost never lets up on that light-heartedness.

While I don’t think one could have expected anything else from Taika Waititi, even as a fan that dissonance takes a moment to settle in, when films of this period are so consistently, understandably solemn and tragic you’re not exactly primed for this level of quirk. I never doubted Waititi’s intentions but the execution was yet to be seen.

2 watches later and I think, or at least would like to believe I’ve come to an understanding of Jojo Rabbit beyond that it’s pretty good. Looking back at Waititi’s filmography I think Jojo Rabbit makes explicit a very consistent approach to empathy and the absence of it that manifests here in the film’s construction of fascism that is somewhat at odds with how wider culture has come to understand the Nazis specifically.

Jojo Rabbit is not a typical Nazi comedy (if there is such a thing), nor is it particularly in step with current trends in left wing comedy in general. It’s not The Great Dictator where the Hitler analogue is a childish clown until he isn’t, and it’s not it The Producers where Nazism is a laughable relic of a history we’d like to move on from. Jojo Rabbit frames fascism as something fundamentally external to the human experience, not to suggest that it is not carried out by humans but that that is the manifestation of something that is in opposition to any sense of humanity. There’s an understandable concern that that idea of fascism could lead to apologism for those who have benefited but I would argue Jojo Rabbit’s framing of it as simultaneously evil and absurd makes that re-litigation kind of impossible.

The film’s representation of Adolf Hitler does not exist, Waititi is only playing a construction of him in the mind of a child, there is no silly little man to laugh at or evil figure to detest because this world is as displaced from the reality of him as anyone but his inner circle was. What Taika Waititi’s Hitler represents is the corrosive effect fascism has on societies beyond the tangible and objective violence. If this 10 year old child can hate so viciously out of almost nowhere because it’s the easiest way to live then what hope is there for a world he has to live in. This constant idea of othering fascism as something that comes from outside us; be that outside our self or our town or our world is the key to its tone and how a film so lighthearted can still work to present those ideas as unequivocally evil.

This is laid out fairly early on in a scene where Jojo and his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) stop in front of the bodies of people hanged for crimes against the party. Jojo refuses to look at them directly until his mother actively turns his head at which point he asks “what did they do” to which his mother responds “what they could”, this is recalled later when Rosie tells Jojo she’s “doing what she can”. The very specific invocation of passivity as an ally of fascism suggests that the film’s framework of fascism is ultimately a total ethical absence and begins to set the stage for a conclusion built on more than just accepting that cruelty as a part of life. The film uses Jojo’s almost contradictory fanatical obsession with iconography and inability to engage with the reality of the situation to imply that those two things are not inherent to each other without letting either off the hook but suggesting that individuals have the ability to comprehend fascism as evil in societies where it is easier for them not to but that the first step is being able to acknowledge the suffering of others.

One of the film’s most important and contentious components is Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf, and to a lesser extent the other adult Nazi aligned characters. Klenzendorf is unequivocally a Nazi, he initially bemoans not being able to serve and until the film’s final act makes no attempt to distance himself from the regime. He is also portrayed as a sympathetic character, protecting Elsa from the Gestapo and eventually saving Jojo’s life. Klenzendorf is also pretty clearly coded as gay though the film never makes this explicit. A lot of critics have reacted to this character negatively, arguing that this positive portrayal of a Nazi at best muddies the film’s message and at worse reflects poorly on Taika Waititi’s own politics. I found myself just as confounded by this character initially but I think looking at the film from a different lens, one where apathy itself is collaboration then his presence is fundamental to its themes. Klenzendorf, like every character in this film exists under fascism despite his current allegiance with it, as a man who has been disabled in service who may or may not also be gay, he is also a potential victim. Despite this, he makes the selfish and unforgivable choice to be a Nazi, and he is not forgiven, he dies a Nazi and his death is only worth what it means for Jojo in that moment. But this choice to die to keep Jojo safe is perhaps the most explicit manifestation of the film’s framing of fascism as the absence of caring, boiled down to the most direct, interpersonal exchange it possibly can be. In a world where furthering cruelty in your own self interest is the easiest possible choice, helping others is a conscious internal decision that we have a responsibility to keep making. Captain Klenzendorf is not a “good Nazi”, but for a brief moment he reflects how deeply Nazism as a belief system runs counter to human nature.

Jojo Rabbit’s fundamental struggle of apathy vs empathy as the defining internal conflict of humanity is perhaps the only direction a Taika Waititi film set in Nazi Germany could have gone, because that struggle underpins so much of his body of work, it is made painfully tangible here but from Boy through to the good parts of Thor: Ragnarok, he has dealt with apathy as a diversion from humanity. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople, this takes the form of Sam Neill’s Hector, a man who feels so deeply alone after the death of his wife that connection to anyone else may as well be fantasy. In Boy this manifests in Waititi’s Alamein who has constructed intricate lies to hide the fact that he can’t bear to live where his wife died and in his son who wants more than anything for those lies to be true. Throughout his filmography Waititi has posited looking your fellow man in the eye or creating a world where you don’t have to as the only choice we really have to make and Jojo Rabbit is no different.

One final criticism levelled at Jojo Rabbit is that it’s comedy is its biggest failing, either that it’s pandering or that it’s trivialising or that it’s not funny, the latter obviously being hard and largely useless to argue against if it didn’t make someone laugh. Humour is incredibly subjective and it’s hard to debate the intention of a joke when it lasts for such a short time and often doesn’t hold itself to that critical standard but on rewatch when I knew where the story was going I think at the very least even its most crass moments of humour are in service of some wider theme beyond the basest idea of “funny Nazis”. These evil ideas espoused by this 10 year old boy are immediately transformed into total absurdism creating a kind of moral vacuum where the fact that they can never last itself creates hope for something better in their place. It’s not perfect but I don’t see it as the film’s downfall. (Nor is the dancing, it’s fine.)

Despite all of this, I don’t think anyone is wrong to not like Jojo Rabbit. It’s a film about an incredibly serious topic with an at points abrasive sense of humour and a sentimentality that will no doubt feel unearned to plenty of people as well as I’m sure a million other reasons it might not work for someone. But I do think it’s a film with enough going on to be worth at least a second thought. Maybe because as a fan of Taika I had given it the benefit of the doubt but going in I found myself surprised by how strangely touching it was beyond the obvious moments of tragedy. How constantly and unconventionally it asks what it means to live in a world where truly knowing the people around you comes at a cost and how there really is no other option. I view Jojo Rabbit more as a film about learning empathy than forgiving cruelty and I think the fact that it never does ask forgiveness for the evil it depicts is massively important to that. It’s not about how anyone is secretly good but how the nature of humanity is to want to be better.

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