“JOJO RABBIT”

Each November, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) provides members like my wife Carolyn with screenings, discs and streaming codes to see the year’s best films and TV shows. This precedes nominations and the January election for the SAG Awards. The first movie we saw left a lasting impression.

Jojo Rabbit, set in wartime Austria (could be Germany, not made clear and doesn’t matter), presents the relationship between a 10-year-old boy, Jojo (played wonderfully by Roman Griffin Davis), an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth with a good heart, and a young Jewish woman, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his house. Sounds like quite a drama, right? It is—and it isn’t.

There’s nothing amusing about the Third Reich and the Holocaust, but there’s everything downright funny about Jojo Rabbit, directed and co-written by New Zealander Taika Waititi. Taika’s name? Maori. So what connection could he have to this material? His birth name is Taika David Waititi, and he’s also known as Taika Cohen (his mother is Robin Cohen).

Here is a film filled with humor but not for cheap laughs. JoJo Rabbit offers satire at its best. The day before we saw it, I presented a talk to members of my synagogue, Sherith Israel, about the uses of satire and comedy in a political context: “Chuckles, Laughs, Guffaws: Autocrats’ Biggest Fears.” Tyrants can fight violent rebellion with more violence. They can counter logical arguments with opposing arguments, no matter how illogical. They can choose to ignore protest, though attention is generally paid. They can even survive a dramatization of the plight of their country. But no tyrant can stand to be ridiculed and laughed at.

Taika Waititi bought the rights to the novel Caging Skies by the New Zealand-Belgian writer Christine Leunens. It’s a serious piece. Waititi loves comedy. He made a movie in which humor dominates, heightening rather than obscuring the drama inherent in the story. (Some of his approach seems inspired by the offbeat filmmaker Wes Anderson). Waititi also plays Hitler—an insecure clown, who speaks with Jojo in the boy’s imagination.

Some things we know. The Allies won the war. Hitler committed suicide. Six million Jews perished in camps, in ghettos, on city streets, in forests. Some survived. Joao Rabbit makes a point of demonstrating that some Germans/Austrians resisted. Many paid with their lives. When Jojo sees several men and women hanged and left on display in the town square, he asks his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) what they did. In one of the best lines of dialog I’ve ever heard, she answers succinctly, “What they could.”

I’m not about to give details away, although I must give a shout-out to Sam Rockwell, in my judgment one of America’s finest screen actors, as Captain Klenzendorf. Let me just say that you will laugh at the idiocy of Nazism and its ferocious anti-Semitism, and you’ll cry.

Satire can be a two-edge sword. Poorly wielded—too obvious, too crude—it can injure its creator and those it wishes to help. Sharpened to a fine edge, it can do what drama often can’t: tell a truth that explodes autocrats’ inflated ego and hypocrisy. As with Humpty Dumpty, all the kings horses and all the king’s men can’t put them back together again.

The post will take off next Friday for Thanksgiving. Enjoy the holiday.

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

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6 Comments


  1. Tracy Boxer Zill
    Nov 23, 2019

    I look forward to seeing this one at the Balboa — perhaps Saturday night.

    Gut Shabbos

    tracy


    • David
      Nov 23, 2019

      And, Tracy, I look forward to your response.


  2. Karen Shay
    Nov 23, 2019

    David,

    Your review is just brilliant and your point of autocrats and dictators having no tolerance for humor is spot on. For all the verbal nuclear bombs Trump drops on people, the slightest pin prick of a humorous barb could pierce his hugely inflated ego balloon. Isn’t he the only President to not attend the annual Press Agents Dinner (or whatever it is called)?? And another question: has any one ever seen or heard him laugh? Don’t think so. Keep up the good work David!


    • David
      Nov 23, 2019

      Thanks. Karen. I did a talk recently on the subject of satire in the geopolitical sphere and began with an audience volunteer blowing up a balloon (orange) and a second pricking it with a pin.


  3. Jerry Hurwitz
    Nov 24, 2019

    David,

    I just read your review and now I know what you guys were talking about this morning.

    Thanks,

    Jerry


    • David
      Nov 24, 2019

      Next, Jerry: See the movie.

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