JoJo Rabbit succeeds at comedy, fails at satire

Scott Powell

If Taika Waititi’sJoJo Rabbit” wasn’t supposed to be a satire, it would probably be a good movie. The film itself is a sheer delight– a funny, charming, absurd journey through the Third Reich with beautiful production design, cinematography, costuming, and a quirky cast of characters.

From a stylistic standpoint, it’s a film in the same fairytale-esque vein of directors like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino– the kind that revels in its own madness and lunacy, whose first and foremost mission is to show its audience a good time. It’s delightful chaos.

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Or it would be, if it weren’t for the swastikas in the background of every shot.

The problem with “JoJo Rabbit” is that the film’s world is designed and written in such a way so as to appear like a fantasy, but it isn’t.

What makes the chaos of Anderson and Tarantino’s films so delightful is the fact that it’s carried out in isolation of reality. The worlds of these films are overtly fantastical, excessive, and therefore not to be taken seriously. They are specifically tailored– in their dialogue, their production design, their cinematography, their costumes, etc.– to make their unrealness known, thus ridding themselves of the responsibility to adhere to any kind of a moral code in their narratives. When the world of the story isn’t real, the underlying values and logic that dictate it don’t have to be either.

The problem with “JoJo Rabbit” is that the film’s world is designed and written in such a way so as to appear like a fantasy when, really, it isn’t. The world of the movie, the world of Nazi Germany, was very very real.

Now, there’s anything inherently wrong with making light of real, serious topics– even ones so real and serious as the mass-genocide committed by the Nazis. It’s been done before, and to great effect. But if Nazism is going to be the subject of comedy, then it needs to be the subject of the comedy. In “JoJo Rabbit,” it’s more like a backdrop.

The essence of comedy is to draw attention to the logically irreconcilable fact that we exist, and that we continue to exist, despite everything we are capable of perceiving in this world– including ourselves– being seemingly hell-bent on destroying us. Of course, different styles of comedy highlight this contradiction in different ways– farce highlights the irrationality of our own individual natures in contending with the world, absurdism the irrationality of our logical reasoning, and satire the irrationality of the cultural and societal institutions we erect for the sake of creating some semblance of order.

And this is where “JoJo Rabbit” goes wrong. It’s not that the movie isn’t funny, it’s that it’s not funny in a way that’s fitting to its subject matter. The comedy in the film is more akin to farce– it’s the characters’s quirky, oddball personalities, not the ridiculousness of the ideology to which they subscribe, that make the movie funny. The individuals are the butt of the jokes, not the institution.

Thus, the satire really isn’t there, because actual logic of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis isn’t defined or understood clearly enough to be lampooned. The movie doesn’t grasp where it was that the Nazi’s ideology came from, or what it was that actually motivated them, and thus it can’t effectively dissect what truly made it so wrong.

The Nazis in the film are characterized as mere simpletons who follow along with the most devastating mass murder in modern history just because they are too simple and silly to know any better. But simplicity and silliness was not what drove Nazism. Rather, it was the product of an intentional, concentrated effort by an elite class to erect a rigid, authoritarian social order, and a complacent populace who was not willing to fight against them.

(The Characters’) placement in Nazi Germany is inconsequential, and thus seems to merely heighten the film’s shock value, without adding any real substance.

)However, neither this blind commitment to a rigid ideology, nor this complacency are on display in “JoJo Rabbit.” The characters’s deepest convictions are not tied to the Third Reich, nor are they tied to a desire for societal stability. Instead, they are driven by much more individualistic objectives and values, expressing primarily indifference toward both the government itself and the societal order it seeks to maintain.

This makes it so that the audience isn’t laughing at Nazism, the ideology itself, but rather at individual people who just happen to be Nazis. This in turn purports that Nazism was the product of hapless human buffoonery, rather than being the thing that made its followers into hapless buffoons.

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This is perhaps best illustrated in the characterization of Adolf Hitler, played by Watiti himself. In the film, Hitler acts as JoJo’s imaginary friend and conscience– a sort of Jiminy Cricket-type companion, if Jiminy Cricket were a sociopathic, genocidal European dictator. The character is funny, but he isn’t Hitler. Hitler didn’t have a conscience. Or at least, he’s certainly not known for his rationality. He was a man defined by his blind, maniacal passion and raw energy. Watiti’s Hitler, on the other hand, is a reserved, kooky, wise-cracking sidekick. He’s a very funny wise-cracking sidekick– indeed, the whole cast of characters are very funny– but, apart from the funky moustache and the comb over, he doesn’t capture the essence of the man he’s meant to depict. And when the character does begin to shift into the more sinister persona he’s remembered for, it comes off as contrived because it doesn’t align with the character’s previously established motivations.

And that’s the case with any of these characters. Their Nazism isn’t what ultimately drives them, so they don’t do much in the way of highlighting the danger or irrationality of the ideology. You could place them in any country, under any government, in any time frame, and they would still be pretty much the same. Their placement in Nazi Germany is inconsequential, and thus seems to merely heighten the film’s shock value, without adding any real substance.

Although a genuinely funny and innovative film, “JoJo Rabbit’s” failure to truthfully or authentically characterize the Nazi regime and understand the forces that drove it to power, ultimately causes it to fail in achieving its central purpose.

Scotty Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.