“An anti-hate satire.” That’s the label writer/director Taika Waititi stuck onto his latest feature, the damn-near insufferable “Jojo Rabbit.” Have you ever longed to spend two hours inside the head of a cute ten-year-old Nazi? If so, this is the movie for you: from the opening frame, we’re plugged into the consciousness of Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), an enthusiastic little member of the Hitler Youth. Waititi’s chosen point-of-view allows him to cast himself as Jojo’s imaginary friend and greatest hero: Adolf Hitler. Get your tickets now!
Now, we actually reviewed “Jojo Rabbit” last November—Sam Finbury wrote a very positive, very well-written article, and I encourage everyone to check it out. Since then, “Jojo” has earned about $45 million at the global box office and six Oscar nominations (I’d be shocked if the film left Sunday’s ceremony empty-handed). I don’t mean to rebut Sam’s piece, but I would like to clarify why this misfire of “anti-hate satire” left me with a particularly disgusting taste in my mouth.
See, satire is supposed to challenge its audience, exposing the stupidity of a given situation through ironic exaggeration. But satire only functions if it’s telling you something you don’t already know—without that edge, satire is nothing but noise. If the heightened, constructed reality is just reiterating an already-accepted perspective, why did we need the heightened, constructed reality at all?
It would be hard to look at the last hundred years and ignore how fascism keeps appealing to a significant number of assholes. This disgusting stain of an ideology refuses to go away completely, and “Jojo Rabbit” seems semi-interested in exploring its seductive qualities. It asks, “what pre-teen wouldn’t want to run around in a uniform, blowing things up in the name of a rigid social order?” But as “Jojo” continues, our titular character learns that this set of beliefs comes at a cost, a lesson imparted by both his mother (Scarlett Johansson) and Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish refugee who’s been hiding in his home.
Forgive me if I’m not particularly moved by this progression. It all seems so obvious! Obviously fascism comes at a moral cost. Obviously Jews, or whatever group far-right hatemongers have deemed sub-human, are people. Obviously with enough love even the most committed child-Nazi could change. I consider myself lucky: I have very little personal experience with anti-Semitism. But never once have I longed to sit through watching an anti-Semite learn the error of his ways. Fascism is, by definition, nonsense—a 108-minute illustration of this point is as unnecessary as a tweet that reads “racism: Bad.”
The burden of Jojo’s re-education falls on the women in his life, characters who are infinitely more interesting; like last year’s “Green Book,” another sloppy, “crowd-pleasing” re-staging of recent history, “Jojo” picks the wrong main character. Why would a mother who hates the Nazis let her son join the Hitler Youth? What are the moral obligations of civilians living under a fascist regime? Does Elsa befriend Jojo because of a genuine connection, or for the sake of her own survival? A braver movie would’ve invested in these questions, and maybe even supplied some thought-provoking answers.
Then there’s the character of Captain Klenzendorf, (Sam Rockwell), Jojo’s Hitler Youth counselor. Spoilers ahead: “Jojo” implies that Klenzendorf is queer and in a relationship with another officer, Finkel (Alfie Allen). But in his time in the SS, how many queer folks has Klenzendorf hurt? In a superb piece titled “How ‘Jojo Rabbit’s’ Gay Nazis Denigrate Queer History,” essayist Esther Rosenfield writes: “Waititi, however, seems uninterested in exploring this apparent personal contradiction. […] In ‘Jojo Rabbit,’ Waititi depicts a gay man’s complicity in the destruction of his own community as a punchline.” Instead of exploring Klenzendorf’s psychology or relationship to fascism, the movie settles on a brainless redemption arc.
All but abandoning the improvisational style that made his prior work so propulsive, Waititi sticks to his script and “quirky” Wes Anderson-esque production design. This is an enormous mistake: “Jojo’s” jokes rarely land, and said screenplay emphasizes sentimental platitudes over anything genuinely horrifying, funny or subversive. The director is willing to peek at the depths of Nazi evil, but he avoids showing or staging anything that could truly impact his audience. I can’t remember the last time a film so thoroughly failed to justify its own existence. “Jojo Rabbit” doesn’t qualify as satire, and merely being “anti-hate” registers as entirely unimpressive.
The people we’re fighting today aren’t cute little ten-year-olds. They’re individuals so disconnected from love and reason that they will not be convinced out of their hateful beliefs. They march for racist monuments and kill counter-protestors and they have the support of the President of the United States. They look like the KKK in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” and their ideology has murdered millions. If “Jojo Rabbit” is the best we can do to fight back, well, I’m not feeling particularly optimistic about our chances.