An editorial by Geoff Sifrin.
SHOULD IT BE morally permissible for a film to be made, portraying Hitler as a clown, where constant salutes to him of “Heil Hitler” are a joke? Is comedy an appropriate medium for portraying the Nazis, 80 years after the Holocaust, when their millions of victims are still within living memory? When Taika Waititi (44), director of the satirical Nazi film Jojo Rabbit walked onstage at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre on Sunday to huge applause, to receive an Oscar for People’s Choice, one of the first Māori New Zealanders to win, the answer seemed to be a resounding ‘yes!’. In his film, he was expressing the theatrical nature of our era, in which anything goes, even portraying Hitler, the embodiment of evil, as a fool, a slapdash participant in a one-dimensional plot, not unlike a child’s story about ‘cops and robbers.’
Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) was a similar poking of ‘fun’ at Hitler and his dangerous, fiery rhetoric on the European scene. Similarly, in 1942, The Fuehrer’s Face was a song by US band Spike Jones and the City Slickers, which topped the hit parade for a year. When these shows were on, Hitler was already in power, stirring the German masses to fight for their fatherland and their Aryan race with cries of “Deutschland uber alles!” but the horror of the Holocaust was not yet known.
This type of political tomfoolery was not, arguably, that different from the ways in which our generation today pokes fun at child-like US President Donald Trump, with his thumping of the drum about making America great again, bragging about what he has done for the country, the danger letting non-American migrants in, and the stirring of the American masses to support him without knowing what he does and according to what values.
Implicit in parodying Hitler is a trivialisation of his millions of Jewish and other victims. They are hardly mentioned in JoJo Rabbit in any serious way which could provide some context for a viewer, particularly one who is not familiar with that period in history. A child may come out of the movie thinking that Jews really are ‘different’ and have the figurative ‘horns’ they are accused of, because of all the references to them being so. Today’s generation hardly reads books, and many would see JoJo Rabbit with no understanding of what the Second World War was about and the role that Hitler played in it. Would traditional Holocaust memorials screen JoJo Rabbit, or a Holocaust survivor approve of the movie?
How would South Africans react to a film poking fun at apartheid’s victims and turning its leaders into innocent buffoons who had no idea of what they were doing or fighting for, and who felt misunderstood by the world?
Fiction and history can be difficult bedfellows. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2006) by Jon Boyne is a ‘Holocaust’ tale with saccharine values that dangerously digress from what the Holocaust was. It is told from the viewpoint of a 9-year-old German boy named Bruno, the privileged son of a Nazi commandant during the Second World War who befriends a Jewish boy on the other side of the concentration camp fence. There too, the stark reality of what was happening in the camp takes second place to the fictional childish tale.
Waititi claims Jewish heritage tenuously: He mentions his maternal grandfather’s Russian Jewish identity. He used his mother’s surname, Cohen, for himself in some of his works. He describes himself as a “Polynesian Jew”. He says he experienced prejudice growing up as a Māori Jew. Making Jojo Rabbit, he says, has reminded him of the need to educate our children about tolerance and the need to remember that there’s no place in this world for hate. Children are not born with hate, they are trained to hate. Sadly, these blushing statemes are so overused and bland, that they have become meaningless. Do Waikiki’s vague Jewish links give him the credentials to laugh at Hitler and the Holocaust? Moral grandstanding and platitudes of this nature are the poison of our age which allow terrible things to happen, with no-one having the guts to stand up and say it is wrong, lest they be accused of being ‘politically incorrect.’
Based on Christine Leunens’s 2004 novel Caging Skies, which Waititi’s mother insisted he read, Jojo Rabbit follows the life of Johannes, a lonely German boy, a Hitler youth who has been completely brainwashed, who discovers that his single mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic. Aided only by his imaginary friend – Adolf Hitler – Jojo must confront his blind nationalism as the war continues to rage on.
Waititi’s description of the film as an “anti-hate satire” aside, it poses profound questions about contemporary society and the role of film and the arts in general. In an interview, Waititi said comedy was a very good satirical medium. Previous films and books have attempted to see war and the Nazis through the eyes of a child, with a humorous flavour to them, such as Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, which was a darkly controversial film in 1979. In The Tin Drum, the child is so disturbed at what he sees in the behaviour of adults that he decides to throw himself down the stairs in order to thwart his growth and thus, never to become an adult.
Today, it seems, anything goes. To say something is forbidden, such as the trivialisation of the Nazis and their victims in Jojo Rabbit, would earn opprobrium and raised eyebrows. From a South African context, censorship was the bane of our existence. But weighing up the value of a vanity project of the nature of Jojo Rabbit, the platitudinous principles articulated by Waititi and the unimaginable pain that Jews still know from the Holocaust, should Jojo Rabbit have been allowed to be made?
- Geoff Sifrin is a veteran South African editor, journalist, columnist. See more of his work on his blog