Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Jojo Rabbit Gets in Der Fuehrer’s Face

Each generation gets its own Hitler. I’m not speaking here of world geopolitics, although dictators (alas) currently seem to be popping up left and right. Rather, I’m referencing all the films (from Hollywood and elsewhere) that address the Nazi era in line with the stylistics of their own times.

In 1940, when the United States had not yet entered World War II, Charlie Chaplin took it upon himself to caricature the Nazi leader as an inept clown toying with a beachball representing the globe. The film was The Great Dictator, and it was Chaplin’s way of urging the U.S. to move away from neutrality and join the fight against Germany and her allies. Comedy also came into play with Ernst Lubitsch’s witty To Be or Not to Be (1942), in which a troupe of Polish actors (one of them played by Jack Benny) find their own way to work against the Nazi cause, partly by recruiting a Hitler-impersonator from their ranks. Even the Walt Disney company got into the act, through a nine-minute propaganda cartoon, Der Fuehrer’s Face, in which Donald Duck dreams of being a slave to the Hitler war machine. This hilarious little piece, set to a typically catchy, typically crazy Spike Jones ditty, won the Oscar for best animated short in 1943.

The mid-Sixties,  a time of growing revolt against the ways of the past, saw funnyman Mel Brooks launch his feature film career by directing The Producers (1967), with its infamous “Springtime for Hitler” production number lampooning Die Fuehrer and his fans. The very Jewish Brooks, who years later remade To Be or Not to Be with himself and wife Anne Bancroft as the central players, has been asked how he can find humor in the portrayal of a leader bent on wiping out Brooks’ own people. His response: that such films as The Producers represent a personal triumph over a cruel and powerful enemy. After all, he and his fellow Jews are alive and well; Hitler is not.

 The unexpected hit of 1998, Italy’s Life is Beautiful, dealt with Nazism’s impact on average citizens fancifully, by showing a Jewish father using clowning and imaginative trickery to protect his young son from recognizing the horrors afflicting them both. Audiences mostly found this film heart-wrenching, though critics decried its schmaltz quotient. A huge contrast came by way of Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 action epic, Inglourious Basterds, in which wiping out comically evil Nazis became a thrilling adventure. (Typically, Tarantino rewrote history in order to end with a satisfying bang.)

Which leads me to this year’s Jojo Rabbit, which comes (as unlikely as it seems) from Taika Waititi, a New Zealander who is the offspring of a Maori father and a Jewish mother. In depicting a ten-year-old German boy, circa 1945, who has adopted Adolf Hitler as an imaginary confidante, the film can be called a poignant coming-of-age story. But its most special moments are outrageously comic ones, in which the ineptitude of local Nazi wannabes (vividly played by Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson) is put on full display. Waititi himself hilariously portrays the imaginary Adolf as a figment who’s not especially bright, not especially capable, but still sparks the imagination of young Jojo, who’s looking hard for role models. In fact the power of the imagination also courses through my favorite character in the film, the sympathetic but complicated mother played by Scarlett Johansson. 

For me, Jojo Rabbit is a welcome addition to the ranks of films that defy Nazi-type ideology by asking us to respect the humanity of those who may not be just like us.

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