Friday, 7 February 2020

Rabbiting On

Taika Waititi's JoJo Rabbit tells the story of a ten year old Hitler Youth member, a loyal if naïve Nazi ("massively into swastikas"), who compensates for his unpopularity as a squeamish nerd by imagining that Hitler is his friend. Naturally, this imaginary Adolf, played with relish by Waititi himself, is also a squeamish nerd, though one increasingly given to petulant rages that mirror the young Johannes "JoJo" Betzler's dawning realisation that Jews don't have horns and that the Fatherland may be heading for defeat. The trigger for JoJo's rapid maturing is the discovery that his mother is a member of the resistance and secretly harbouring Elsa, a teenage Jewish girl. When not interrogating Elsa for the book on Jews that he is writing, JoJo spends his time on Hitler Youth duties amid a collection of misfits, pyschopaths and his sole friend, the indestructible Yorki. It's a coming of age story, but it's also a commentary on the need for a measure of fantasy to maintain psychological health.

The film has been criticised as tonally clumsy and even flippant in its attitude towards the Nazis, with the implication that a lack of seriousness towards the subject is typical of a jaded liberal intelligentsia. In contrast, the film's champions have seen it as a story of hope and empathy in the face of the recent normalisation of the far-right in politics. In other words, the film is being read as a contemporary satire that either fails because it isn't vicious enough or succeeds because it is humane. It is insufficiently intolerant on the one hand, and "we go high" on the other. Margaret Hodge vs Michelle Obama. My own reading is different, you'll be pleased to hear. I think the key to the film, and the reason why it should be regarded as a sophisticated work, is that it isn't about the Second World War so much as the postwar reaction to it, and specifically how literature dealt with the proximity of horror and humour, from Joseph Heller's Catch 22 to Spike Milligan's Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall.

For most of the critics, the reference points are films that attempted to satirise the Nazis, such as Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, or more recent works that sentimentalised the Holocaust, such as Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful and Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. But JoJo Rabbit isn't really a satire of Nazism, any more than Mel Brooks's The Producers was. Just as that film was a satire of showbusiness, so Waititi's slapstick and verbal wit is concerned with the role of contemporary cinema. The better comparison would be with Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. What the two films share is a more-is-better attitude to irony and a soundtrack that nods to David Bowie (the theme from Cat People and Heroes respectively). When Captain Klenzendorf prepares for his own Gotterdamerung at the film's climax, it is pure glam. In fact, Bowie might have been good casting for the part, though Sam Rockwell in eye-shadow is certainly enjoyable.

This Nazi world seen through the eyes of a child is absurd, but not simply in terms of its mad ideology or the moral evasions of its people. It doesn't make sense, or no more sense than the parallel universe conjured-up by Tarantino. Everyone in the picture-postcard small town appears well-fed and smartly-dressed despite it being the final weeks of the war, with armies approaching from every direction - "Even the Canadians". There is no shortage of weaponry and Hitler Youth camping trips are still being organised. The death of JoJo's sister is never explained, nor are the circumstances of his mother's capture and execution. Yorki finally decides he has had enough of being a child soldier in a paper uniform and should return to his mother ("I need a cuddle"). This is a landscape straight out of a fairy tale, not an exercise in cinema verité. As a study in delusion, it owes more to Harvey than A Beautiful Mind.

The film is also not engaged in a sentimental celebration of the human spirit, or the survival of decency amid the horrors of war, despite the humanising narrative arc of JoJo's relationship with Elsa. There are moments of heroism, such as when Klenzendorf covers up for Elsa during a visit by a faintly Pythonesque Gestapo squad, and Yorki remains a beacon of innocence throughout, like a diminutive Good Soldier Svejk, but these reflect a live-and-let-live attitude rather than any adherence to principle. Many of the characters have something to hide: JoJo his imaginary friend, his mother her resistance activities, Elsa herself, Klenzendorf his homosexuality. The only one who seems unburdened is Yorki, though his worldview is not without pathos. JoJo's final rejection of Hitler is a moment of self-acceptance, but Yorki got there before him: "I guess I'm just a fat kid in a fat kid's body".

Rather than other films, what JoJo Rabbit reminded me of were two books: Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Both were made into films but neither fully captured the feel of the novels. I've not read the original story, Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, but I understand Waititi's screenplay is radically different both in plot (there is no imaginary Hitler in the book) and tone. What I think Waititi takes from Grass is the self-absorption of the child who believes he can influence the world around him. What I think he takes from Vonnegut is the idea that only the fantastic can allow us to conquer the terrible. It's hardly an original thought that we must leave behind childish fancies in order to face the terror of existence, but JoJo Rabbit makes the further point that adults can never fully escape the desire to recover that childishness and that sometimes surrendering to it is the only fit psychological response. In a round about way, he's mounting a defence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

1 comment:

  1. Nice observation about the characters having something to hide. Could have done without the German shepherd joke. And did you think there was a botched Ju-on joke in there?