Jojo Rabbit and the Complications of Satirizing Fascism

I was going to write about Yun Kouga’s Loveless this week, on the basis that I hadn’t read it since I was a teenager, and even then felt that the age gap dynamic was uncomfortable and weird. However, This Friday I was discharged from eating disorder treatment after 3 months in what was ostensibly a day camp for sad people. The thought that now I have to actually get my life together and the loss of structure to my week has left me flopping around on the floor, being noncommittal. In lieu of a real article, have some cool and fun undeveloped thoughts on Jojo Rabbit.

I am not a real film critic I just have opinions

I love satire, especially political satire. I grew up on it; one of my favorite movies as a 10-year-old was Mel Brooks’ the Producers. In my early and mid teens I ate up South Park and the Colbert Report (pre-woke years, don’t @ me). I think when you’re growing up othered in some way, as I was as a developmentally disabled and queer kid, lampooning the status quo and those in power is an effective means of sanity. If you can look around you and say, “yeah my life sucks right now and I’m powerless to change it, but all of this is so hilariously absurd,” you can keep the weight of reality from crushing you. I feel like because I used this sort of comedy as a survival strategy, I get unduly defensive when I see criticisms of satire as a genre, which usually run along two lines:

  • There’s a danger in that some people might just not get it, and think that the satire is played straight. (The most commonly cited example of this is Fight Club, which like, yeah)
  • satire is a neoliberal fantasy that makes light of serious issues and does not promote radical social change. At it’s worst, it can make villains nonthreatening, and give further ammunition for ridiculing the other. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Jon Stewart-era the Daily Show run along these lines.

Of course I initially ate up Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit when I watched it last week, because, as stated above, I love that sort of shit. Then I read this takedown by Esther Rosenfield, and after the scheduled period of defensiveness, I began to digest it. And really thought about the way the film handled its subject matter. And the complications which arise when satirizing Nazis, per detraction #2 above.

I do love Taika Waititi, I think he’s fantastic. I think Jojo Rabbit was very brave of him to make in a cultural moment that rejects nuance. I also just think the first half of the film is so, so funny. There’s a scene when Jojo is at Hitler Youth camp or whatever, where the counselor (I think Rebel Wilson?) shouts something akin to “Hey kids, ready to burn some books!?” and I just about lost my shit. Waititi as Imaginary Hitler is also the right amount of cartoonish and comical, and very believably the romanticized figment of a little boy’s imagination. In addition, I saw in an interview that Taika Waititi was interested in portraying how war was perceived through the eyes of children, which is really interesting and you can definitely do a lot with that! However, I think Jojo simultaneously went too far and not far enough.

The problem with satirizing something like Nazism is that you really have to stick the landing, or else wind up with something harmful. Something that, like detraction #2 against political satire says, “makes villains nonthreatening and gives further ammunition for ridiculing the other.” I feel like Jojo Rabbit does not stick the landing. The second half of the movie especially is tonally jumbled. It’s hard to take the serious things that happen seriously, or see the brutality of war and fascism as brutal, when people are still prancing around and silly things are happening. The climax of the film, when Berlin is taken, jumps in between harrowing scenes of explosions and offbeat comedy that echoed Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I think Waititi was trying to do the whole “through children’s eyes” thing here, but it still lessened the impact for me. Furthermore, the sympathetic portrayal of Sam Rockwell’s character, the Hitler youth counselor (?) left me feeling unsettled. It’s one thing to portray real-life historical villains as inept lunatics (I think Rebel Wilson’s performance did a good job at this), though once again you run the risk of defanging dangerous figures. It’s another to give them a mini character arc, show them ultimately sympathetic to the Jewish girl Jojo’s mother harbors, and have them save Jojo’s skin at the climax of the movie. He becomes sympathetic rather than an evil we’re mocking.

I commend Jojo for getting inside the head of an indoctrinated child while also clearly putting its foot down that the ideology in question is evil and bad. I also appreciated the exploration of his actively anti-Nazi mother and the sacrifices she makes to keep up a veil of normalcy and safety for her son (in no small part due to a fabulous performance by Scarlet Johansson- who is still cancelled). I do think it’s limited in scope by it’s own ambition (like, this movie is trying to do way too many things at once) and its focus on Jojo’s viewpoint. What about Elsa, the 17-year-old Jewish girl that Scarlet Johansson’s character is protecting? What about her viewpoint?

These are obviously fairly undeveloped thoughts, especially since I only saw the film once, and have only really been thinking about the problems with satire for a few days. Also, my working through this is starting to go beyond the scope of this short writeup. I’ll likely be returning to this topic as my thoughts and feelings about both the film and its genre continue to evolve. In the mean time, feel free to discuss this shit below. See you next week.

Published by K. Russek

K. Russek is a (supposed) writer and visual artist living in Philadelphia. They have a lot of Strong Opinions on internet culture, representations of gender and race in historical ethnography, and the absolutely shameful amount of trash romance comics they've consumed over the past 10 years.

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