IS IT REALLY safe to assume that every watcher of commercial films the world over, has a basic understanding of history? We live in a time where libraries have lost their hold, paying others to write academic assignments is considered a legitimate means of earning the cheese, and youth on the whole cock a snoot at the value of history. We also live in a time where Jewish communities exist in social archipelagos, rather than the mainstream, as they once did. For these two reasons, the mounting of a film as beautifully crafted and carefully made as Jojo Rabbit, which is punted as something of a comedy, something of a satire and on some level, something for children, is grossly irresponsible.
Here is a tale, offering insight into the life of a small boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who is subject to certain very clear levels of violent brainwashing. He is bullied. He is told terrible fairy tales about a kind of person called a “Jew” that is endowed with horns and tails, and has various powers and monstrous habits. He believes these things. And then one day, he comes upon one of these people in his own house. Her name is Elsa, and she (Thomasin McKenzie) attempts to dispossess him of his preconceived ideas. Only, she does it with complicated irony, that, stripped of all context, reveals very little about what Jews really are and what really happened to them in the saccharine-flavoured nature of this film.
So, if you live in a small village in the Eastern Cape of South Africa and have never come across a Jew, what, really is your response to this weird bit of filmic licence? Do you take those anti-Semitic stereotypes, coined as far back as the 15th century in the West, and run with them? Are you equipped with enough to understand the volte face that the child Jojo experiences? Do you know what Elsa means when she says “my parents have gone to a place from which they will not return”?
Indeed, a Holocaust-redolent yarn needn’t be all sturm und drang, striped uniforms and barbed wire, and the behemoth industry of Holocaust fiction is too big and crudely commercial to poke holes in, but surely there’s something more important in the justifying of a bit of Hitlerian bullshit than saying that the filmmaker has Jewish links.
Jojo Rabbit presents McKenzie in a role that stretches her considerably less than her film debut Leave No Trace. She’s cast opposite a completely perfect Scarlett Johansson as the child’s mother, and an utterly problematic imaginary buddy of Jojo’s by Taika Waititi, in the form of Adolf Hitler. It’s peppered with beautiful shoes, nifty narrative circles and wild anachronisms by way of accents and music references that further muddy an ostensibly historic water.
So who is Hitler? Why is he a thing? Recasting a political figure in a satirical light is not a novelty, but here we come away with a silly buffoon with a stupid moustache who is dead and not dead, who eats unicorns and sleeps in the child’s bed and when said child finally understands something and kicks him in the balls, he vanishes for good, much like any other benignly intentioned imaginary friend when the child comes of age. Only, there’s one problem: this is Adolf Hitler, who rose to be Fuehrer of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and who spearheaded what was known as The Final Solution, which saw the organised murder of at least 6-million Jews in Europe, as well as millions of other people, who didn’t tow the Nazi line, including homosexuals, members of the Roma community and the disabled.
In short, Jojo Rabbit is, like its trailer promises, in execrably poor taste, not only for its flawed and sensationalist narrative, but also because it is so well made and so palatable, it’s like a bit of sugar-coated politics slipped into the milk and cookies of the next generation. What are we telling our children?
- Jojo Rabbit is directed by Taika Waititi, and written by Taika Waititi based on the novel by Christine Leunens. It features a cast headed by Alfie Allen, Gabriel Andrews, Stanislav Callas, Brian Caspe, Luke Brandon Field, Gilby Griffin Davis, Hardy Griffin Davis, Roman Griffin Davis, Robert East, Sam Haygarth, Christian Howlings, Scarlett Johansson, Curtis Matthew, Thomasin McKenzie, Stephen Merchant, Billy Rayner, Sam Rockwell, Taika Waititi, Joe Weintraub, Rebel Wilson and Archie Yates. Produced by Carthew Neal, Taika Waititi and Chelsea Winstanley, it features creative input by Michael Giacchino (music), Nora Sopková (set), Mihai Malaimare Jr (cinematography), Tom Eagles (editing), Des Hamilton and Maya Kvetny (casting), Ra Vincent (production) and Mayes C Rubeo (costumes). Release date in South Africa, through Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: January 17, 2020.
- See another opinion piece about this film, here.