To me, the perfect, sublime expression of absolute human evil comes from Schindler’s List, when the film’s antagonist, Amon Goeth addresses his Jewish housekeeper/slave,
“ I realize that you are not a person in the strictest sense of the word”
When one group of people decides another is not worthy of life, truly awful, terrifying things happen. When one group decides to align a DMV-level bureaucracy and efficiency at another, genocides occur. In light of the rise of Nouveau Nazis, it would be morally reprehensible to play the “Those Wacky Nazis” schtick without also reminding us that laughing at them is what allowed them to rise to power, and then use that power in a way that is still deeply disturbing. The brilliance of Jojo Rabbit is its ability to do both, simultaneously, and intellectually engage with that concept “Some people should not be alive” while both poking fun at it, and acknowledging it’s an extremely disquieting, troubling notion.
People often ask me how I can be so flippantly humorous about a life-limiting diagnosis. Most people are inherently unfunny (I don’t mean that most people lack a sense of humor or can’t laugh; but most people fail miserably when put into a situation where they’re forced to be funny), mostly because, I suspect, they don’t have any idea what function it serves. I’m not going to claim I have some sort of secret wisdom from the universe, but I will say that Glenn Duncan got it best when he wrote that “Humor bridges the divide between how the world should be, and what actually is.” (I’m paraphrasing that from I, Lucifer). Humor is a safety valve. For me, writing about my travels in the abyss is a reassuring exercise in just presenting the story, as it unfolds to me, from my reference frame, then slyly grinning, “This isn’t just me, is it? This is fucked up, right?”
That sort of use of clever slightly-teasing-out real events to just-plausible-enough and then framing them with a sly wink to someone not directly involved/hurt by the situation to illustrate the fundamental absurdity of the situation is exactly how this film works. All while reminding us that, whenever one person claims another is less than human, the former has outed themselves as untermenschen. The thing about humor is, it’s never harmless. This is why most dictators, terrorist groups, and similar folks, tend to frown on it.
So, the recap, in brief, at Nazi Summer Camp (I’ve formally studied the Third Reich, but I honestly have no idea if that was a real thing)(in one of the early indicators about what you’re going to see; imagine those disinterested, casually cruel, disaffected camp counselors who preferred to ditch their charges in favor of smoking and drinking in the woods, except that they’re now charged with passing and perpetuating such cruelties on to other innocent children. It’s both hilarious and heinous (the film lurches between hilarity and horror masterfully), and culminates in one of the counselors choosing some poor random Nazi Youth stooge they dislike to kill a rabbit in front of the class. Because I was raised in a rural area and cultivated a healthy disdain for creatures that produce unpleasantly gamy meat and poop all over your garden in the mean time. I’m all for rabbit-killing, but even I’d know that the proper, new-to-animal killing method is to use a big rock (“Big rocks” being the go-to problem-solving tool since the stone age). I’ve heard that you can snap a rabbit’s neck, but it’s a tricky business. Anyway, in Jojo Rabbit, Cruel Youth Counselor pessures Jojo to “wring the rabbit’s neck” (I suspect certain aspects of this film are inaccurate); Jojo, being a decent ten-year-old-human-being, declines the invitation, and runs off to the woods to pout and sulk and commiserate with his invisible friend, Hitler (yeah, friendly bears as a child’s imginary friend are so overdone). Hitler reminds Jojo that the rabbit has a nasty, hard-scrabble existence, and a label like ‘Jojo Rabbit’ might be an odd mark of courage and skill. Thus empluckened, the boy and Hitler go bounding back through the forest to meet the Hitler Youth Group and set them right. Only, due to some poor timing and quasi-abusive parenting skills, Jojo accidentally leaps onto a live grenade. This leaves him with a limp, a new set of scars, and unable to participate in all the other things young boys his age experience, such as being sent to the Russian Front (ironically, one of the cleverer aspects of the script is the fact that Jojo’s initial act of mercy eventually saves his life). It is during this time that he learns his mother is active in the Resistance, and is sheltering a Jewish girl in a crawlspace in their house. To provide a running commentary on it all is Jojo’s imaginary friend, Hitler.
If that sounds like it’s all a little over-the-top; well, yeah. That’s kind of the point of the film. It takes place against a backdrop of societal paranoia and genocide (there’s a running visual of recently-lynched Resistance members hanging in the town square)(if you thought your Halloween decorations were edgy). Again, most of this film’s pitch-black humor derives from painting normal, childhood existence against this Schindler’s List backdrop. Here’s the really weird, perverse thing: it totally works. You would not imagine six minutes’ of sieg heiling could be a comedic performance piece, but, once you see this film, you will never again be able to watch a Leni Riefenstahl clip or that clip from “Downfall” that’s Internet-famous without smirking. At the same time, the film never backs away from the message, “The Nazis were bootlicking, servile scum who deserve nothing but contempt and mockery, but they killed millions of people.” It’s a jarringly paradoxical sentiment, to say the least, and the film never goes off-message, and kind of veers from one to the other (remember the lynched resistance members? That becomes a gut-droppingly critical plot point in the third act).
The emotional core of the film — which I can relate to — is Jojo’s growing disillusionment with the Nazi movement after being demoted from Aryan poster boy to “ Lebensunwertes Leben,” and being forced to make friends with people he used to sneer at, including the Jewish girl living in the crawlspace. The pivotal moment in the film that acts as the perfect counter-point to Goeth’s odious sentiment from Schindler’s List, is when Jojo asks Elsa, “Tell me about the Jewish race,” and she responds — perfectly — “We’re a lot like you, only we’re human.” It’s Anne Frank played by Wednesday Addams.
I’ve seen a lot of people complaining about this film not providing any final solutions to the Nazi problem, except we’ve already found the solution. Germany certainly has; they haven’t had a major Nazi problem since 1945, when they learned that genocide isn’t a good look, and it impoverishes a nation. They aggressively legislated against Nazism and any associated actions. Nazi paraphernalia and symbolism is absolutely illegal. Regional pride is frowned upon. Holding rallies is probably against every zoning ordinance. We could get rid of Nazis next week if we fined employers who knowingly employed workers with known fascist sympathies. We could get rid of them next week if Mark Zuckerberg added alt-right web pages to the list of verboten postings/links. In short, we could get rid of Nazis by ignoring them when they were afraid to go out in public, and ostracizing them when they were in public. We could refuse to engage in bad-faith arguments that punching Nazis is as bad as the genocide they advocate. We could simply punch Nazis, instead of fact-checking them. We have the solution, we lack only the will to put it into place; we know that Nazism and fascism work only when no one stands up to the bigot in the room, and the first step in that is removing that fear. Humor is an incredibly powerful tool in that regard. To quote Wodehouse, “We do not fear that which we scorn.” This film is a good first step in that direction.
So, back to the film. A major reason why this film is amazing is the cast, who portray most of the Nazis not as being particularly zealous or evil; merely cynical people who are after an easy paycheck (special shout-out to Rebel Wilson, whose consistently horrifying handling of firearms and explosives probably suggests genuine expertise — just as Lionel Hutz’s consistently awful legal advice suggests someone on the Simpsons writing team is a JD), who aren’t particularly ambitious, bright, or evil. They’re just DMV workers, except the DMV is evil. Er, more evil. I do not know if the Nazis actually let children play with live hand grenades or firearms, but it does not strike me as the dumbest thing the Reich could do. Sam Rockwell shines as the world’s worst father-figure (Taika Waititi shines as the imaginary friend Hitler, but I’m not sure imaginary Adolph counts as a father figure), who displays a surprising amount of nobility and generosity at the last minute (admittedly, that’s after two hours of unadulterated insanity, but this is a comedy).
Oh, and, please, if you see someone in a swastika armband during the holidays, punch them in the face whilst shouting, “Happy Channukah, you fascist fuck!” It’s what Jesus (who was Jewish, let us never forget) would have wanted. Also, go see this film immediately.