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‘Jojo Rabbit’ and Nazi Satire: Why It’s So Hard to Mock the Bad Guys, and How to Get It Right

"Jojo Rabbit" isn't the only attempt to mine humor from Nazi characters, and there's a reason why it's so hard to pull off.

Jojo Rabbit

“Jojo Rabbit”

Focus Features

It’s impossible to address the challenge of Nazi satire without considering “The Day the Clown Cried.” Jerry Lewis’ misbegotten 1972 production found the comedian directing himself as a Jewish entertainer at a concentration camp. To date, the completed work (if it exists at all) has never been seen. Lewis was reportedly ashamed of the project and managed to hide the footage from the world for the remainder of his life. “Jojo Rabbit” is some indication of why Lewis wanted to bury it: It’s no easy task to turn the Holocaust into a punchline.

There’s a difference between confronting evil and actually dismantling its assumptions. For all the good intentions of “Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi’s “anti-hate satire” never contends with the Nazism at its core. It would be a different story if the movie, in the grand subversive tradition of “The Producers,” appropriated Nazi iconography by positioning it in a ludicrous context divorced from ideology. Mel Brooks’ 1967 smash wasn’t actually about Nazis so much as the shock value they symbolize; it wasn’t designed to assail any specific belief system. In “Jojo Rabbit,” its child protagonist exists at the center of a Nazi-occupied universe, albeit one loaded with ludicrous caricatures. And therein lies the rub.

In a movie that reduces the Nazi mentality to a zany barrage of gags, the prospect of dismantling Aryan notions of racial purity, or even instinctive hatred for the Jewish people, has no real staying power. “Jojo Rabbit” is long on vision but short on insight at a time when a searing repudiation of Nazism could really come in handy.

“Jojo Rabbit” hits theaters just a few weeks after “Joker,” and despite the murkiness of that movie’s message, there’s no question that it manages a more successful confrontation with the nature of an evil mind — the internal mechanics that drive mindless hate, the accumulation of anger and frustration that lead people to lash out at the world in irredeemable ways. It’s a tragicomedy about the thin line between tragedy and comedy, as well as the forces that can lead society to confuse the two. And it drops viewers into that ambiguous space, leaving them to sort through a murky ethical quandaries within. By contrast, “Jojo Rabbit” simply pokes its subjects with a sly grin, until the titular young character wakes up from his spell.

“Jojo” pretends to enter the lion’s den, but lacks the courage to explore what it really looks like. And these days, the concept of Nazism has morphed into a more subtle threat that percolates in our society, sometimes in more latent ways than much of the country cares to admit. Satirizing Nazism from decades past is basically a copout.

That’s probably why some people love it. If Waititi wallowed in the bleak realities of Jewish persecution or the continuation of anti-Semitism to this day, it wouldn’t be “Jojo Rabbit.” Like much of Waititi’s work, this colorful coming-of-age comedy merges whimsy with the emotional poignance of a child coming to grips with the adult world, and on some occasions it musters real sympathy for that plight. But the adult world surrounding him plays like a half-hearted cartoon. Sam Rockwell’s giddy stormtrooper is a sketch of a character who ultimately becomes Jojo’s lovable father figure, even sacrificing himself to save the kid in the movie’s big finish. The movie also portrays him as murderous anti-Semite. “Jojo Rabbit” never reconciles these competing variables, nor does it attempt to interrogate the very real paradox of a kind-hearted person with a monstrous relationship to the world.

Such was the brilliance of Charlie Chaplin dancing with the globe in “The Great Dictator,” as his Adolf Hitler stand-in Adenoid Hynkel tussled with inane aspirations. The elegance of the slapstick in this 1940 classic formed a statement unto itself, implying that even the worst human tendencies stem from a complex network of desires and misguided convictions — the inanity of the Nazi character stems from a realistic core. When Waititi himself surfaces as Jojo’s imaginary Hitler pal, he’s just a child’s notion of heroism, devoid of substance. It’s believable that Jojo may be too young to grok the sheer mania of Nazism, but the movie dangles his naïveté as a joke unto itself: Kids those days believed the damnedest things!

The Holocaust invites a lot of bold takes, and usually not the funny kind. “Jojo Rabbit” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the coveted Audience Prize, but fewer people made time to see a very different Holocaust movie in the festival lineup that also dealt with a child’s perspective on the war. “The Painted Bird,” the Czech’s submission for the Best International Film Oscar, adapts Jerzy Kosinski’s controversial novel about a young boy wandering the vacant wastelands of a war-torn Europe, eventually finding himself at the mercy of crude Nazis and Stalinist troops.

The nearly three-hour black-and-white saga is a taut study in miserablism as the beleaguered kid careens from one persecution to the next: Abandoned by his parents, his last refuge burns to the ground, and his subsequent caretakers lead to a smorgasbord of abuse — he’s forced into slavery in one village, where the local mystic buries him up to his neck in mud; another man rapes him; later, a woman takes his virginity and lures him into an erotic tryst before cheating on him with a goat. At times, “The Painted Bird” is a cycle of nihilism that stifles the genuine pathos at its core, but ultimately it musters a profound disgust for the way an innocent character contends with the unrelenting darkness of Nazi-occupied Europe.

“The Painted Bird”

IFC Films

“The Painted Bird” never aspires to make a mockery of its subject, but it takes some audacious (if not always successful) risks in how it approaches its goal. The poor kid’s struggles are so ludicrous that they nearly pitch into an absurdist comedy, with the kind of brash provocations that suggest the specter of Lars von Trier. It has the ambition missing from “Jojo,” a willingness to look directly into the void rather than sparing viewers the ugly realities of relentless struggle.

And maybe that’s why it will only appeal to the small fraction of people willing to take the plunge. Kudos to IFC Films, the U.S. distributor for “The Painted Bird,” for taking the gamble on this gorgeous and devastating cinematic achievement — but it’s obviously not a mass-market template for parsing evil, as “Jojo” aims to do. Waititi has delivered a quick fix for audiences who want their movies to lighten up the world, but all that sun outshines the awful truth.

So what is the happy medium for parsing hatred and doodling all over it at the same time? In the 2016 documentary “The Last Laugh,” an engaging deep dive on the subject of Holocaust humor, an octogenarian Mel Brooks holds a comb horizontally beneath his nose and issues the Hitler salute. “This is the guy that made me money, so I stay with him!” he says. Brooks has no shame: He started cracking jokes about the Holocaust before the liberation of the camps. But at no point has that humor actually attempted to comprehend the Nazi mindset. He’s all too eager to exploit Nazism for personal gain, and does so with a masterful comic brush, but stops short of giving it the satisfaction of genuine representation.

Perhaps the sheer lunacy of anti-Semitism is a joke that requires no fictitious layer. Fifteen years ago, Sacha Baron Cohen dressed up as his fictional “Borat” persona from “Da Ali G Show,” took some hidden cameras to an Arizona country bar, and sang a catchy tune with a chorus imploring his audience to “throw the Jew down the well.” Little by little, the ebullient crowd sang along. It was a chilling, brilliant stunt designed to illustrate the infectious nature of mob mentality, years after Nazi rallies lost their currency on the world stage, and anticipated much of the horrific bigotry on display whenever Donald Trump addresses his most fervent supporters. Cohen’s humor is funny because it’s true, eliciting the kind of laugh that catches in your throat. When it comes to this brand of satire, there may be no other way.

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