Why ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Is Social Justice Filmmaking Done Right

Why ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Is Social Justice Filmmaking Done Right

Director Taika Waititi lures us in with what makes us laugh, then shows us his true brilliance by making us cry.
Caroline D'Agati
By

The jaunty, familiar Beatles tune, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” runs in the opening credits. We see black and white footage of screaming girls, a familiar sight anytime we hear the Fab Four. In fact, it’s so normal that it takes us a minute to realize that they are bidding us “Komm, gib mir deine Hand,” and they’re not screaming for John, Paul, George, and Ringo. They’re screaming for Adolf Hitler.

Director Taika Waititi’s Nazi satire “Jojo Rabbit” pulls a fast one on the audience and never lets up. It reminds us of the human cost of Nazism—not in historical black and white, but in brightly colored sets and catchy music. By putting us in the shoes of both victim and villain, “Jojo Rabbit” is fun, beautiful, and convicting all at the same time.

‘Come on, Sh-tler, Let’s Get a Move On’

If you’re looking for all-out mockery of the Third Reich, “Jojo Rabbit” won’t disappoint you. Ten-year-old Jojo Betzler (played impeccably by Roman Griffin Davis) is an ardent but very insecure member of the Hitler Youth. So Jojo creates an imaginary best friend to overcome his insecurities: Hitler.

Although initially reluctant, Waititi agreed to play Hitler himself, reasoning “What better way to insult Hitler than having him portrayed by a Polynesian Jew?” Waititi’s unicorn-eating, feckless Fuhrer purposely bears zero resemblance to the real thing. For an ideology that took itself so seriously, Waititi’s Nazi slapstick delivers a cosmic burn that stings even beyond the grave. It’s theater of the absurd at its best.

The burns continue with the movie’s cadre of Nazi numbskulls. Whether it’s Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) proclaiming that she’s had 18 children for the Fatherland, or Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) as a drunk, washed up, and possibly gay Stormtrooper, Waititi mocks the pants off the Nazis. But all of the sudden, “Jojo Rabbit” learns the same lesson the world did: Hitler would not remain a joke forever.

Just Two Kids Dancing to David Bowie?

Just like in real life, Waititi’s Nazis turn from comedy to tragedy on a dime. The human toll of the “Hitler joke” becomes clear when Jojo discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is harboring Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a teenage Jewish girl.

Like millions of others, Elsa and Rosie’s suffering is the inevitable “punchline” of the great Hitler joke. As Jojo grows closer to Elsa, he learns that Jews do not have horns, nor is there an egg-laying “Jew Queen.” This forces Jojo to weigh his Nazi fantasies against the reality of the two women he loves.

Where Waititi really outdoes himself is the movie’s bright, humanizing aesthetic. For most of the movie, we don’t see drab black and white clothing or bombed-out cities. We see an incredibly stylish Johansson taking bike rides with her son through verdant fields. We don’t hear tragic, orchestral music. We hear a whimsical score and The Beatles and David Bowie auf Deutsch.

The quirky dissonance of seeing two WWII-era kids dancing to Bowie’s Cold War anthem “Heroes” offers both an accessibility and a timelessness to their struggle. Jojo isn’t a Nazi monster. Elsa isn’t a sainted victim. They’re just two kids trying to regain normalcy in a world gone mad—because, as Jojo’s mom explains to him, “Dancing is what free people do.”

Relax, SJWs: It’s a Movie, Not a Sermon

One common reaction from critics is that “Jojo Rabbit” isn’t serious enough or doesn’t give enough attention to the victims of Hitler’s ideology. Indeed, having a Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies major from Middlebury College read his dissertation on screen would definitely hit all the SJW checkboxes, but it makes for garbage art. We aren’t coming the movies to hear a sermon on the ever-shifting victim/oppressor hierarchy. We came to feel something new about what it means to a human being.

And Waititi delivers in fine style. Like Robin Williams, his comedic genius belies his razor-sharp awareness of the human condition. He lures us in with what makes us laugh, then shows us his true brilliance by making us cry. He leads us on the same journey the world took: at first laughing at Hitler. Then, too late, realizing just how unfunny this joke could be.

Through this journey, Waititi allows us to relate not only to the victims, but to the perpetrators. As we see the increasingly sympathetic Jojo and Captain K., we come to the inconvenient conclusion that Nazis were not some subspecies, distinct from today’s woke master race. We are they; we are the ones who sat through the joke too long until it became a tragedy.

Waititi’s not humanizing the Nazis. Like all the best artists, he’s humanizing us. He doesn’t lecture. He doesn’t shove it down our throats. Especially in a generation with an increasingly poor grasp on Holocaust history, he makes it accessible—through satire, David Bowie, and bright colors.

He’s an emerging master at work, and “Jojo Rabbit” is an absolute pleasure. Go see it immediately.

Caroline D'Agati is a writer, former park ranger, and New Jersey expatriate living in DC. She studied English at Georgetown and media studies at The New School. You can follow her on Twitter at @carodagati.

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