Clive James once observed that “Nazi reality is a caricature. The more precisely you evoke it, the less probable it looks.” It’s a quote that, if you know it, resurfaces often as you watch Taika Waititi’s war comedy. It’s whimsical stuff; the smashing together of Mel Brooks-like absurdity and Wes Anderson-esque wry detachment, that could easily be mistaken for glib were its subject matter – the indoctrination of the (gentile) German mind and annihilation of its soul, not so serious.
However the offer, to explore such horrors in an unfamiliar register, with a certain flippancy born of the ten year-old protagonist’s perspective and his imaginary friend – a Hitler constructed from propaganda, will strike some as unforgivably breezy – the Mitchell and Webb “are we the baddies?” sketch dragged out to feature length.
Yet James’ aside on Hitler’s Germany rings true; it was a place of vulgarity and fantasy, normalised so that arid minds and brass hearts became commonplace. Waititi opts to forego the affected solemnity usually associated with period, substituting it with something closer to the truth; a false consciousness and heightened acceptance of the absurd.
When little Jojo discovers the Jewish teen his mother, active in the German resistance, is hiding, he tests some of the more outlandish lessons garnered at Hitler Youth – Jews can read minds, for example. Is this making light of stupidity that saw a culture turn a blind eye to genocide, or an affirmation of how permeable and ready to scapegoat its Jews, that culture was?
Jojo Rabbit, despite its shrewd stripping back of Nazi ideology down to its constituent contradictions and inhumanity, is something of a fairy-tale. It asks us to believe that a boy living in early 1945 Germany, with the end fast approaching, could be shaken from the grip of life-long nazificiation by the twin jolts of falling in love with a Jewish girl and losing his mother to the regime’s psychopathy. Waititi, in other words, wants us to hold faith with an innate humanity that can be managed but not expunged – warped but not broken. Do we believe him? Do we think a still-cooking human can be saved if given a way out? Your views on that question will determine how bold or Disney-like you find Waititi’s wide-eyed reflection on Nazism.
I liked the movie’s inherent optimism, but had to bury facts like the hidden Amsterdam Jews sold out by collaborators and sent to the death camps for the equivalent of £45 per head. The truth’s somewhere in the middle of course, but making a movie about that wouldn’t be any fun.