Warning: this post has been composed on two hours of sleep
Rammstein's song "Deutschland", released earlier this year, poetically describes the cognitive dissonance of wanting to love one's country in spite of the horrible things it's done. They lyrics themselves don't go into any detail about what those horrible things are in Germany's case, even though Rammstein has never shied away from dark and taboo topics that most normal people don't want to think about. The video, however, depicts (among several other things) the band members reenacting a concentration camp execution, and despite their obvious good intentions some, including actual Holocaust survivors, considered it quite shocking and tasteless. I think that's a good thing. I worry about a future day when everyone who experienced World War II firsthand is gone and its horrors have become ancient history to the desensitized idiots running the world.
When I heard that "Jojo Rabbit" is a comedy about Nazis, but didn't hear about any commensurate outrage, I knew I had to see it. Without knowing anything else I could guess the sort of thing they were going for and how its approach offers what is, unfortunately, a very timely and relevant message in this era when Nazis are making a resurgence. (In the United States, that is. Germany doesn't actually let self-proclaimed Nazis march in its streets. Go figure.) I frequently have a dark sense of humor that I probably need to repent of, but more to the point, I think there are legitimate times and places to apply humor to most subjects that conventional wisdom suggests should never be joked about - either because context makes the humor profound rather than shocking and tasteless, or because it is shocking and tasteless but in the right way. It's a balancing act, to be sure.
And the worst specimens that humanity has to offer are not exempt from this principle. As David Morgan-Mar of Irregular Webcomic! wrote, "Yes, I make jokes about Nazis. I make fun of the Nazis because they were pathetic, evil excuses for people who deserve to be made fun of." When he wrote this way back in 2013, it probably seemed reasonable to describe Nazis in the past tense.
To my disappointment, the titular protagonist is not an actual rabbit. He's a ten-year-old boy who looks like my cousin Jaden, who's more than ten years old but close enough. The rabbit part is a nickname he acquires that has little significance to the movie unless I missed some deeper threads of symbolism, which I probably did because I don't know how to art. Anyway, Jojo is living in a fictional German town toward the end of World War II and he's completely enamored with the Nazi cause. He worships Hitler and detests Jews even though he knows nothing about them. And this is the guy we're supposed to root for. There's a powerful and, ugh, timely message here about indoctrination and people, to say nothing of children, getting swept up by dangerously wrong ideologies. How did Hitler brainwash millions of normal people, and what's to stop someone else from doing the same? This movie won't let you not think about that.
Much of the humor in "Jojo Rabbit" focuses on making the Nazis look ridiculous, which isn't hard. Their fanaticism and xenophobia are ripe for satire, with the latter being an interesting example of shocking and tasteless in (what I regard as) the right way. Several characters say vile, appalling things about Jews without disclaimers or irony of any kind. (The exception is when the Jewish character Elsa says them to Jojo sarcastically to mock him.) But these lines are so absurdly hyperbolic and impossible to take seriously that they make the Nazis, and really by extension all racists everywhere, sound stupid, which is funny because it's true. It's a subtle but significant step beyond "racist jokes" that exist solely for shock value. The shock value is there, but it has an actual message. As with Rammstein's video I can understand the perspective of those who would find such a portayal irredeemably offensive, but these are things that happened and we still have to grapple with them all these decades later using every tool at our disposal.
Hitler himself has been ripe for comic treatment in everything from "Looney Tunes" to "Robot Chicken", I think in part because he's transcended mortality like perhaps no other figure of the twentieth century. What he did was orders of magnitude larger than the human mind can truly comprehend, so for those of us whose lives he didn't directly ruin, he's more of a symbol than an actual human being. I can't personally hate him any more than Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun. He was a comically deranged little man, and an appropriate target of humor for the same reasons as Nazis in general, but constantly making him the butt or promulgator of jokes risks becoming tasteless and dismissive the kind of person he really was. (This is less of a risk with random Nazi characters, because in real life not every person who threw their lot in with that ideology back then was pure evil. Nowadays it's harder to rationalize.)
"Jojo Rabbit" solves this problem in two ways. First, the Hitler in the movie is not the real Hitler, but Jojo's imaginary friend who embodies his youthful zealotry for the Nazi cause. He can be goofy and funny and even - shudder - likable at times because he is, in fact, the product of a ten-year-old child's brain. Second, even with that being said, the movie starts to show us his true colors and eventually (spoiler alert) makes known in no uncertain terms what it thinks of him and what he stands for. One of the people I watched it with expressed her bewilderment that they had a ten-year-old child say the f-word. I think it should be more shocking that they dressed a ten-year-old child in a Hitler Youth uniform and had him say terrible things about Jews, but more to the point, if there's ever a completely appropriate and unobjectionable context for the f-word, this is it. I don't doubt that Jesus himself would say the f-word in this context.
Other than that, the tone of the movie tends to avoid dark humor as such, differentiating between comedy and tragedy. The plight of the Jews and German resistance fighters, and even one Nazi officer who turns out to be human after all, is played completely straight. Still, scattered throughout are some instances of death and injury played for laughs, and one humorous mention of Gestapo torture. Somehow it works and doesn't seem inconsistent. Another David Morgan-Mar quote seems apropos: "It is my general philosophy that humour can help ease despair and loss. That's why I can make jokes based on some of the most terrible events in human history. I've done it before, and I'll do it again. But never feel that I am insensitive to the real world suffering and loss experienced during these dreadful episodes."
In summary, Nazism is a cancer and the only platform we should give its proponents is one that comes with a rope and a long drop. Racism is a cancer. Xenophobia is a cancer. White supremacy is a cancer. If we as a species could grow up and learn that, maybe movies like "Jojo Rabbit" wouldn't need to exist.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.