Can Nazis be funny? It’s not a question you expect to ask yourself when sitting down to watch a movie by New Zealand’s biggest name in Hollywood, but Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit forces you to ask it.
Jojo Rabbit seemed a pretty oddball project for Waititi to take on after the hits of Boy, Thor: Ragnarok and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, but it’s part of a long lineage of stories that mock the Nazis to make a point. It took in nearly $1.2 million at the New Zealand box office over Labour Weekend. But is a movie that imagines Hitler as a kind of cuddly imaginary friend for a young German boy during World War II in good taste or bad?
It won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, but critics are more mixed on it – The Chicago Sun-Times called it “irreverent, edgy, provocative envelope-pushing satire,” but the Los Angeles Times thought that “its so-called audacity smacks of calculation and emotional cowardice.”
So, are we allowed to make Nazis funny or not? Here’s the case for and against:
1. Hitler was kind of funny. Most dictator/authoritarian types are. Look at Kim Jong-un, with his beady stare and tossed-salad haircut, or that guy in the White House. Waititi – who’s of both Māori and Jewish descent – plays Hitler himself in Jojo Rabbit. To modern eyes, the preening, sweating moustached dictator can seem like a living cartoon character.
Mocking the Nazis goes all the way back to when Hitler was alive and ranting, with Charlie Chaplin’s send-up in The Great Dictator back in 1940 still one of the best attacks on the führer. Mel Brooks debuted The Producers more than 50 years ago, with its whole plot revolving around a tasteless satire of the Nazis that turns into an unexpected hit. Director Billy Wilder even made a POW camp funny in Stalag-17, which in turn inspired TV’s long-running Hogan’s Heroes.
The problem is that if you make Hitler too satirical, you run the risk of downplaying the very real carnage and horror committed in his name. Taika’s Hitler in Jojo Rabbit never feels truly authentic, peppering his talk with modern-day slang and gestures, but there’s a moment or two when he ramps up the ranting rage and you can see what people were afraid of.
Because he’s an imaginary friend in a broadly romantic fantasy of a movie, Jojo’s Hitler is kind of goofily cuddly, charming and supportive of Jojo’s ambitions – as long as Jojo sticks to the Nazi party line, of course. Jojo Rabbit ultimately portrays its title character’s interest in Nazis as a boy really just wanting to belong. “You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club,” Jojo is told at one point.
2. However, the Holocaust really isn’t funny. Jojo Rabbit skirts around the edges of the Holocaust without going too deep. The movie doesn’t stint on showing the human cost of the Nazi regime to Jewish people, but it also doesn’t take us to Auschwitz.
There have been a few movies that have tried to find the funny in genocide. The late Jerry Lewis directed a movie in 1972 called The Day The Clown Cried about a clown entertaining children in the death camps which was so legendarily misconceived that it was never released, locked away in a vault somewhere and only seen by a few hardy souls.
That didn’t stop others with similar stories, like Robin Williams at his most mawkish in 2002’s flop Jakob the Liar, or Roberto Benigni inexplicably winning an Oscar for best actor for 1997’s Life Is Beautiful, one of those films which just gets more cloying and baffling with time. Holocaust movies can start off with black humour, but they always have to end with tragedy.
An entire documentary, The Last Laugh, was made a few years back about whether the Holocaust could ever be funny. In it, director/actor Rob Reiner notes, “The Holocaust itself is not funny. There’s nothing funny about it. But, survival, and what it takes to survive – there can be humour in that.”
3. Then again, New Zealanders are pretty funny. There’s something that just works about dropping the deadpan, laconic kiwi sense of humour into unusual situations. Whether it’s Jemaine and Bret struggling in New York City in Flight of the Conchords or Taika himself as a laid-back giant rock dude in Thor: Ragnarok, it’s funny as when that chur, bro accent pops up in an unusual place.
A lot of kiwi humour is about subtly undermining expectations, and taking a look at the world from unexpected angles. Combining that sensibility with a satire of Nazism is a gamble, and whether or not it works in Jojo Rabbit comes down a lot to personal preference. Archie Yates as Jojo’s bumbling childhood mate Yorki is that vaguely absurdist kiwi voice in Jojo Rabbit, with lines like “It’s definitely not a good time to be a Nazi.”
Can we make fun of the Nazis? Sure, but you’re not guaranteed that everybody will laugh at it. You can make fun of the Nazis, but for many people even doing so undercuts their very real evil. You laugh at Waititi’s intentionally broad Hitler, but you might feel a bit cringe doing so. That might just be the point.
You don’t have to go far on the internet to find outrage boiling away these days. Satire can defuse outrage, but in a world where the far right is on the rise, it doesn’t always feel like hip internet memes are doing much to dispel their allure for some people.
Yet the alternative to satire is either rage or silence. Satire can’t always knock down walls. But it can knock a few holes in them. Jojo Rabbit is a movie you’re meant to wrestle over. A quote by the poet Rilke appears at a pivotal moment in Jojo Rabbit, perhaps guiding us on how to navigate humour and evil – “Just keep going. No feeling is final.”