Jojo Rabbit Holds Up a Satirical Mirror to the Past and Present of Anti-Semitism by Eden Davenport

Updated: Mar 24

A film shrouded in controversy due to director Taika Waititi’s bold choice to set a comedic-drama in Nazi Germany, Jojo Rabbit has managed to engage a modern audience’s attention to an ever-prevalent historical issue. This paradoxical approach has successfully drawn people in to form their own opinions on the film and, thus, has catalyzed a larger conversation on anti-semitism and nationalism in the modern-day.

Known for his biting humor from films such as, What We Do in the Shadows, and Boy, Waititi has once again tackled a serious theme under the gage of a laugh. The film is adapted from the novel, Caging Skies, by Christine Leunens and follows a 10-year-old German boy named Jojo who is a devoted member of the Hitler youth program.

Essentially a coming of age story, the audience follows Jojo as he struggles to overcome his inherent compassion and prove himself to be a good, ruthless Nazi. There to help him through this confusing time is his imaginary best friend Hitler, played by Waititi himself.

Set towards the end of the war, Jojo discovers his mother is a part of the resistance fighters working against the German cause and is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa in their attic. Unable to report Elsa to the authorities for fear of consequences on himself and his mother, Jojo begins to form a relationship with the girl and question his own blind beliefs towards the Nazi cause.

Being in Berlin when I watched this film, I felt apprehensive about seeing something that may or may not make light of such a serious part of history. Placed in the epicenter of Nazi Germany and having the rawest forms of the war all around me, I was understandably skeptical, as many critics of the film have been.

Yet, I was surprised to find a movie that carried its weight in its ability to connect one to the heavy theme, while also satirizing Nazis into laughable fools. By stripping the group of their intimidating image and throwing the limelight on the pathetic people underneath, they’re no longer held up on an untouchable pedestal.

Filled with jokes that tear down anti-semitic and nationalist mentalities, the film has a way of making one feel uncomfortable for laughing at the subject but grateful for the chance to undermine the fear that surrounded those people. It not only gave realistic portrayals of the horrors of the time but also tactfully kept from making light of the suffering that the Jewish people faced.

The thing with Jojo Rabbit, is while new for our decade, it is not the first movie of its kind. From The Great Dictator, by Charlie Chaplin in 1940 to the 1983 remake of, To Be or Not to Be, making a caricature out of Hitler in films and using comedy as a way of making him feel small has been in practice for years.

Watching it with a German audience was an incredible way to see how far the country has come in addressing its horrendous past but made me conscious of how much was left to be tackled in America and abroad.

The truth is, in a day and age where history seems to be turning back on itself with hate-crimes and neo-nazi groups on the rise, we simply cannot be ignoring the warning signs. In recent years, incidents have taken place around the world that are a tell-tale sign that a larger problem is brewing: from the Charlottesville white supremacist rally in the U.S. in 2017 to the Christ Church Synagogue terrorist attack in the director’s home country of New Zealand in March of 2019.

Many view these events as un-equivalent to the horrors of the past, or put them out of their mind if they’re not in the communities that were affected, but if history has taught us anything it’s to not ignore those who use fear as a tool for power and create an “enemy” to place their aggression unto. As has been said many times, it is the remembrance of this history and the characteristics of the people that spurred these horrors that keep us from repeating it. We have the vantage point to look back on the terrors of the past and recognize what spurred those events, so why are we dismissing mimicry of those atrocities now?

Jojo Rabbit, has come at a time where audiences need to be engaging in the lessons of history and reflecting on them in comparison to our modern society. Through his film, Waititi reminds the public of the dangers of blind faith in political leaders and the strength of propaganda and accepted norms on shaping our mindsets.

Films have a way of introducing topics people would usually be hesitant to discuss by serving them in the digestible form of a narrative. The power of this medium is that while it seems to be a passive form of entertainment, it reaches wider audiences and subconsciously spurs discussions on what’s been introduced. The strongest power we have with information is to not ignore it, but analyze it, discuss it, and act on it.

If Jojo Rabbit can teach us anything, it's to pay attention to what makes us uncomfortable, and, most of all, never be afraid to tell your imaginary friend Hitler to fuck off with a roundhouse kick out of your bedroom window.