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.
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