Taika Waititi’s take on the third Reich is a lot of things – it’s goofy, dramatic, emotional and funny.
One thing that a lot of reviewers haven’t mentioned however, is that it is also very relatable. While most reviewers may have derided Jojo Rabbit as unfunny, or for trying to make fun of a dark time, I believe that it offers as much insight into authoritarianism as any other piece of art.
While the film may be set in the 1945, the themes, attitudes and ideologies are all very much present in 2020. Clémence Michallon, from The Independent, captures this idea best when she says – “Jojo Rabbit is, at its core, a tale about the banality of evil..”
While the methods may be outdated, the ideology is not. This unnerving connection to the modern-day is all the more reason to watch Jojo Rabbit. Even though we ourselves haven’t witnessed the horrors of WWII, we are able to witness the ideology that led to the war.
The Return of Hate
The Nazi party may be the most infamous political organisation in history. Their systematic and organised oppression of the Jews in Europe is captured very well through the mind of 10-year-old Jojo. Through his education, we see how the Jews are presented as devils. It’s important to remember that the Nazis didn’t throw Jews into concentration camps from day one, that was the last step.
The infamous “final solution”.
Before that, the Nazis first identified the Jews at the “out-group”, then they labelled them as the enemy through mass media. The Jews were publicly identified, stripped of their citizenship and rights. Whether you look at Trump’s policies towards Latin American immigrants, or the BJP in India’s stance towards Muslims, you see this pattern emerging again. Hate has returned to our politics, and the playbook has been updated for the social media age.
Through Jojo Rabbit, we see how hate can be born even in the most innocent of places.
By using a 10-year-old boy as the protagonist, Waititi has very cleverly shown us that hate does not have a single face. Jojo, even after his accident and scars, is just a boy. Throughout the film, there are scenes that show just how different Jojo is to the other children, yet in his mind, he is as devoted to the Reich as any of them. He knows he is capable of committing the terrible acts that define the Nazis. The use of Hitler as his imaginary friend confirms this. Waititi is using Jojo to show us that people who think and do terrible things are no different than you or me.
Their hate is hidden behind their very normal looks.
We see the powerful propaganda play out in dialogues like “we will crush our enemies into dust! And, when they are destroyed, we shall use their brains as toilets!” So ingrained is this hate, that even though he cannot kill, he is still determined to do his part to help the party. Sounds familiar?
Today twitter trolls do the same thing. Whether they are on the left or right, they refuse to accept the other side. They use the anonymity of social media to hide their true colours. And for those that do come out in the open, they aren’t all old white men. While they make up a majority of the base, supports of right-wing authoritarian governments spans all ages, genders and even races. Just like Jojo, they too are committed to the cause, and that strong belief has given people like Trump, Putin, Modi, Erdogan and the others their power. Sometimes, these supporters can look just like 10-year-old Jojo.
The Power of Propaganda
The film gives an ample amount of space to the Nazi’s method of propaganda.
Through the character of Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson), we see how the Hitler Youth falls prey to the false ideas the Nazi’s propagate. She provides unfounded conspiracy theories, demonises the Jews and happily dismisses anything remotely anti-Nazi by ‘burning books’.
Sound familiar again?
This is exactly what authoritarian governments practice today, albeit the school or camp has been substituted for social media and children for voters. The use of conspiracy theories is the most hard hitting. Without any proper facts to back them up, such theories are the easiest way to spread falsehood to the masses. Fraulein Rahm tells the children about her uncle: “A Jew hypnotized him, and he became a massive drunk and a gambler, and he cheated on his wife, and he had an inappropriate relationship with my sister. And then he drowned, in an unrelated accident, but it was Jews’ fault.” Even though there’s no relation, the Jew is demonised. This is much the same way that Farage or Trump talk about immigrants “taking jobs, committing crimes and damaging the economy”.
Unfounded conspiracy theories are the most powerful stories one can use.
The powerful propaganda in Jojo Rabbit also serves to remind the children of Hitler’s power. Even though Germany is losing the war, Jojo’s imaginary friend Hitler (Taika Waititi) speaks to him, assuring him that Germany will win and the Jews will be wiped out. Even though this Hitler is imaginary, his power is so strong that it directs Jojo’s behaviour towards Elsa for most of the film.
Again, we see how even when condemnable acts are done today, those loyal supports will rally behind their leader. Trump may have just started a war with Iran, yet his base cannot see that he is wrong. Likewise, even though Johnson blatantly lied on the campaign trail, his base refused to believe it. Through social media, authoritarian leaders have spread their ideology, and the algorithms at Facebook and Google have done the rest.
Nowhere is this more clearly visible than in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi still enjoys popularity despite controversial policies such as the Citizenship Amendment Bill, demonetisation and stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy.
Such is the power of the propaganda, that even those that don’t seem to truly believe find it easier to just exist alongside it rather than to oppose it.
The character of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), does just this. While he is a Captain in the German Army, we see an arch from propagating the Nazi belief to saving Jojo’s life by the end. In a crucial scene in the film (spoiler alert), he asks Elsa, who pretends to be Jojo’s sister, her date of birth. Even though she gets it wrong, Captain Klenzendorf does not catch her and take her away, despite the Gestapo being in the same room. He just exists, reminding Jojo and the audience about the power of the Nazi party. At the end of the film, when Jojo is mistakenly captured and brought to a holding area with the other Nazis, Captain Klenzendorf calls him a dirty Jew, and pushes him away. This forces the Invading American soldiers to let Jojo go. This is the first, and only defiant act any Nazi member makes against the party ideology, and can be seen as the films only heroic moment. Draw parallels with today, how many people do you know that aren’t interested in engaging in politics? How many are just happy to be alive, and aren’t bothered by the policies and laws that harm others? There’s a good number out there.
Just look at the turnouts for most elections elections.
There are also those that defy the authorities, and like the loyalists can be anyone. Jojo’s mother Rosie is a member of the resistance and even helps hide Elsa. She does not tell Jojo about Elsa, because she fears what the Nazi mind will do. While she is hanged for her “crimes”, it is important to remember that Rosie acts as a balance to Jojo’s fanaticism, much like how the Democrats are trying to balance out the Republicans. In whichever country you look at, there are always opposers to the government, and through nonviolent methods, they defy the beliefs of the ruling party for a greater cause. We should take heart in the fact that Rosie predicted the Germans would lose, and even though she was not there to see it, they did. Martyrdom should not be the path the opposition should walk, but as we have seen in Turkey and India, it often is.
While Jojo Rabbit may make fun of one of the darkest era’s in human history, Waititi cleverly reflects modern society. The film doesn’t just give us a few cheap laughs, but if viewed through the lens that art mirrors society, the parallels become very clear. Masha Gessen, at the New Yorker summed it up well by saying – “…the truth of the matter is that we are careening into our darkest moment yet, and we look ridiculous doing it. There is a movie about that.”
Article by Srivats Lakshman