“Jojo Rabbit” Challenges Knee-Jerk Reactions To Holocaust Stories

Taika Waititi has adapted a melodramatic novel into a gleefully transgressive movie that pushes viewers to rethink how we react to stories about the horrors of Nazi ideology.

Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is a film designed to raise eyebrows. Billed as an “anti-hate satire,” the movie is gleefully transgressive and unabashedly silly; one scene features Adolf Hitler eating unicorn meat. And it taps into a cheeky cinematic history that dates back to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1967), and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009). Waititi’s film, which opened this past weekend to mixed reviews and strong box office numbers, dares audiences to laugh at Nazis — who have generally been regarded for most of the past century as nothing to joke about.

The film’s titular protagonist is a 10-year-old boy living in Germany during World War II, Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis); Waititi’s Hitler, played by the director himself, is a figment of Jojo’s imagination. In an early script, Waititi (whose mother is Jewish) described the character not as the Hitler we know and hate but as someone who is “goofy, charming, and glides through life with a childlike naivety; a real dork” — the kind of person who comforts Jojo in one scene by sharing his own insecurities before offering him a cigarette.

“Let them say whatever they want,” Hitler tells Jojo. “People used to say a lot of nasty things about me.” As Jojo Rabbit’s editor Tom Eagles told Vulture when talking about how test audiences reacted to the film’s various early cuts, “Most people were down with it, but there was a certain section of the audience who were just like, ‘We can never laugh at this.’”

To assert that comedy should come nowhere near Holocaust narratives is to prescribe (or worse yet assume) just one way to react to them.

With some exceptions, like Roberto Benigni’s 1997 tragicomedy Life Is Beautiful, Hollywood has most often packaged stories about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in accordance with that principle — favoring sentimental, dour narratives, like the book-to-film adaptations Schindler’s List (1993), The Book Thief (2013), and The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017). And, in fact, Jojo Rabbit, in all its absurdity, owes a direct debt to (and, as a result, functions as a commentary on) “serious” Holocaust fiction.

Take out Jojo’s imaginary friend and strip the film of its funny flourishes, and you’re left with a story about a young boy who’s a member of the Jungvolk (a preteen chapter of the Hitler Youth), grappling with the news that his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is safeguarding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in a secret hideout in their home. Jojo’s moral quandary forces him to rethink his view of the world.

That is also the plot of the 2004 novel the film’s script is based on, Christine Leunens’ Caging Skies. (Leunens is a Belgian American novelist who, like Waititi, lives in New Zealand; members of her family were imprisoned in German labor camps during World War II.) But anyone who sees Jojo Rabbit and picks up the book expecting a laugh-out-loud page-turner is bound to be disappointed, for Leunens’ novel, in keeping with most contemporary literary approaches to the Holocaust and World War II, is a serious affair.

Waititi has transformed the melodramatic Caging Skies into a film that’s less an adaptation than a reinvention; it subverts the tenets of how such stories should be told. To assert that comedy should come nowhere near Holocaust narratives is to prescribe (or worse yet assume) just one way to react to them: with hushed, tear-soaked reverence. But as conversations rage on about whether boundary-pushing comedy can succeed in our current political environment and with the resurgence of fascist and nationalist ideals around the world, Waititi’s irreverent provocation suggests a new way to inspire understanding.

The rise of the Third Reich and the Holocaust exist in our cultural imagination as an unfathomable series of events that have nevertheless been overdocumented in the hope, as the invocation goes, that it will never happen again. But as decades’ worth of testimonials, documentaries, chronicles, and films accumulate, those terrifying historical realities risk becoming familiar to the point of being rote.

As Carolyn J. Dean, a historian of modern Europe and a professor at Yale University, expounds in her 2004 book The Fragility of Empathy After the Holocaust, we live in a world where horrific images that once shocked have, because of their ubiquity, become defanged. “The notion that we are currently ‘numb’ and inured to suffering is by now commonplace,” she writes. This extends to the well-worn storytelling devices that have been used to elicit the empathy needed to truly fathom such mass-scale tragedy (think of any World War II film with its tragic ending and rain-soaked cinematography). “That the tears we shed in response to narratives and images of suffering are no longer necessarily pure surely goes without saying,” Dean adds.

Terrifying historical realities risk becoming familiar to the point of being rote.

Primo Levi, in recounting his own experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz in his 1986 book The Drowned and the Saved, wrote about the “gap that exists and grows wider every year between things as they were 'down there' and things as they are represented by the current imagination fed by approximate books, films, and myths. It slides fatally toward simplification and stereotype.”

Such a widening gulf between what was and what is represented isn't exclusive to the Holocaust. But, as Levi writes, the error is in assimilating these passed-down retellings into our own experience, “as if the hunger in Auschwitz were the same as that of someone who has skipped a meal.” Yet that desire to relate is precisely what drives much of the popular culture created about the Holocaust, where readers and viewers are asked to step into the shoes of characters whose tragedy we’ll experience as our own to thus better empathize and understand their plight (often, that character happens to be a noble gentile savior of unfortunate Jews). Laughter and comedy, which work to disrupt such neat one-to-one correspondence, rarely have any place here: “We can never laugh at this” because to do so would mean to leave the comfort of the knee-jerk reaction we’ve been instructed to have.

Jojo Rabbit nimbly takes up that challenge by drawing out uncomfortable laughs, whether it’s at the sight of a pack of kids happily burning books or a young boy confidently describing Jews as having horns and smelling of Brussels sprouts. Upsetting images become fodder not for (or not just for) horror and disgust, but humor. And in order to marry a potentially cloying and sentimental parable to a balls-out satirical exercise, Waititi turns to the most sacred of figures in our cultural imagination: the child.

From Sophie’s Choice to Schindler’s List, Number the Stars, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and The Book Thief, the figure of the child has been central to many stories about the Nazi regime and the horrors of the Holocaust. Children make useful and didactic protagonists precisely because they’re so easy to identify with — we assume their innocence; they come with very little baggage other than their future promise. Children in stories about World War II have also functioned as necessary avatars through which to simplify history in order to explain it. The most obvious example of this is Anne Frank, whose diaries documenting her Jewish family’s life in hiding in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands have been required reading in schools for several generations now.

This archetype is exactly what animates Jojo Rabbit — only, instead of focusing on the child as innocent victim, Waititi sets his eyes on the child as collaborator and perpetrator. It’s a much more provocative angle, and one that nods to recent similar attempts at giving a voice to that generation of Germans in order to understand how the Holocaust could’ve happened at all. By examining Hitler’s cult of personality (arguably in its most outlandish form) and the way his anti-Semitic rhetoric was normalized (here’s a 10-year-old kid openly talking about how he’d kill a Jew if he saw one), Jojo Rabbit demonstrates both the ridiculousness and the danger of Jojo’s fascist zeal.

Waititi’s decision to keep Jojo 10 years old is, as it turns out, one of the main differences between the book and the film. Caging Skies begins with an equally eager Jojo who sees in Nazism an ideology that allows him to belong, that gives him a purpose, and, in the process, a common enemy he can conjure up to explain all of society’s ills — much to his parents’ chagrin. But Leunens’ novel spans several years. And so, for the bulk of the story, Jojo is a gangly and morose Aryan teenager rather than a plucky, curly-haired young boy.

Johannes’s meditations about what it means to help the young girl upstairs — and later, about what it means to develop feelings for her — frames his story less as a coming-of-age tale than an ill-fated romance. There’s a maturity to his language that makes his choices all the more galling: He may have once been a brainwashed child or a lovestruck teen, but at the time he sits down to recount (and perhaps atone) for how he’s treated Elsa, the reader cannot help but see a full-grown adult. And that colors the tricky territory the novel wades into.

Children make useful and didactic protagonists precisely because they’re so easy to identify with. 

That quasi-romantic subplot lends Caging Skies much of its discomfiting sensibility. “I brought the knife down upon her in a soporific manner, just to prove to myself I could,” Johannes writes during an early episode when he wants to assert his power over Elsa. “By the time it stopped against her throat I was sickly fascinated. I knew at that moment that if I didn’t destroy her, Jew that she was, she would destroy me, yet the danger was bittersweet. It was like having a woman as a prisoner in my own house, a Jew in a cage. Somehow it was exciting.” In the book, he becomes Elsa’s captor and savior in equal measure, letting her live for years in the Vienna home that once belonged to his family.

Johannes’s musings on the page attempt to get readers to sympathize with him, an unsettling emotional exercise. That is, it seems, the point — but the novel never quite shakes off the ickiness of what it’s doing. One can imagine the kind of story Caging Skies could have told about Elsa instead, but Leunens insists on narrating from Johannes’s claustrophobic point of view, leaving Elsa inert. Johannes’s lovesickness, which is what forces him to break free from his undying devotion to Hitler, is mined for serious, almost maudlin drama — a narrative that has also surfaced, often in problematic ways, in other movies and fiction.

One of Waititi’s most thrilling changes in the film is the choice to upend the power dynamic between the two characters by making Elsa a sardonic teenager who doesn’t suffer any fools — and makes Jojo feel all the more childish whenever he starts spouting laughable fascist ideology. She tells Jojo he’s not a real Nazi: “You're a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”

If Leunens’ goal in Caging Skies is a tightrope walk — to show the “banality of evil” while acknowledging the humanity of those who took part in it — Waititi zooms out to let us see the absurdist circus that frames it. As Waititi told Leunens when he first finished the script years ago, “It’s still your baby, I’ve just changed the clothes.” What he keeps intact, according to Leunens, is the profound sadness that runs through both their Jojos. But making Johannes remain a child for the entirety of the film pushes the novel’s point of view in a more interesting direction.

Jojo stops being, as he is on the page, a radicalized young man caught between his devotion to Hitler and his love of Elsa. He becomes instead a more pliable and hopeful character — a young boy who literally has to choose between listening to an imaginary Hitler who eggs him on to kill Elsa with a knife or engaging with the clever, young Jewish girl upstairs who indulges him by drawing horned Jews and handily wrestles said knife away from him. Where the book counts on reflective repulsion for Johannes, Waititi’s Jojo, because he’s so gullible and sunny, makes audiences’ responses to him more complicated.

It’s hard to empathize with him at first, especially when he’s so happy about the possibility of joining the Führer’s guard in the future and when he’s so at home riffing with Waititi’s paunchy, petty Hitler. But, slowly, I found myself rooting for him — just as I found myself laughing at Hitler’s jokes. It’s a discomfiting experience, and perhaps the kind that Dean would argue we need more of. There’s no well-worn narrative about a victim’s struggle here to guide us into familiar territory, but a minefield of a comedy that shows Nazis as both buffoons who look like Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant, but also as little kids like Jojo and his chubby friend Yorki (Archie Yates), who look like they belong in a Wes Anderson film. As Dean notes, we should “be suspect of works that make us too comfortable and explore in more depth our responses to works that make us squirm.”

The more we laugh at Jojo and Waititi’s Hitler, the more we find ourselves implicated in the world they inhabit. 

Satires necessarily create a distancing effect. In Jojo Rabbit, there’s no way to merely get lost in the story or caught up in Jojo’s world. The slapstick humor, the punchlines, and the recurring bits (like the way “Heil Hitler” is used ad nauseam and becomes a nonsensical greeting) are constantly jolting the audience awake, underlining the absurdity of what’s onscreen. Thus, when Elsa first appears, wrapping her fingers around a doorframe like some horror creature ready to pounce from the shadows, or when Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) talks of upgrading his uniform with feathers and sparkles, the humor illuminates well-worn stereotypes (Jews are monsters, Nazis are perverts). And when they’re presented in such blunt terms, those stereotypes open themselves up for examination.

In a statement shared with press, Waititi stressed that he approached the project as a comedy out of a desire to speak to people who have only ever encountered the history of World War II through its pop cultural representations. “I hope the humour in Jojo Rabbit helps engage a new generation,” he wrote. “It's important to keep finding new and inventive ways of telling the horrific story of World War II ... so that our children can listen, learn, and move forward, unified into the future.”

The more we laugh at Jojo and Waititi’s Hitler, the more we find ourselves implicated in the world they inhabit. What at first begins as a distancing effect ends up enveloping us. For, if Nazis are a laughing matter, they immediately become all the more human — all the more like us. When a lovesick Jojo keeps relaying letters Elsa’s boyfriend has supposedly written her (in Jojo’s handwriting, of course), it’s touching precisely because it is funny. Jojo Rabbit is an “anti-hate satire” because it refuses to capitulate to the unstated rules of Holocaust stories — instead, it demands that we find laughter in the unfathomable, and humanity in the monstrous. ●

Manuel Betancourt is a New York City–based queer writer and a lapsed academic. He's a regular contributor to Remezcla, the film columnist at Electric Literature, and a monthly columnist at Catapult magazine (“Movie-Made Gay”). He's one of the coauthors of the graphic novel The Cardboard Kingdom, a New York Times summer 2018 pick.

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