As I write, I’m remembering a film I went to see the other day: Jojo Rabbit, based on a novel by Christine Leunens. I suspected it would either be very good or very bad. It was very good.
Jojo Rabbit (played by Roman Griffin Davies) got his name from refusing to kill a rabbit in a Hitler Youth training camp. When he runs away crying, the rest of the fledgling Nazis shout: “Jojo Rabbit” over and over again. A name which sounds cute or suitable for a childrens’ cartoon suddenly becomes sinister. It is a weapon used against a young boy. Jojo, or Johannes Betzler, is 10 years old.
Hitler is not a childish name. Perhaps as long as humanity survives its own self-destructive tendencies, the name Hitler will mean – pure evil, mass murder, and a fanatical hatred of Jews. It is therefore disturbing to see a cinematic portrayal of Hitler as a small child’s imaginary friend. A Hitler who dances and speaks like a 10 year old in one scene and then later appears as the double of the ranting demagogue from the 1930s Nuremberg rallies is disorientating. In fact, the portrayal of these versions of Hitler by Taika Waititi is a master class in acting. Waititi also directs the film. The character he plays is never fully the historic Hitler, and that is not the intention. Yet, when Jojo starts to reject Nazi lies about Jews, there is one scene where his imaginary friend turns vicious and makes a speech eerily similar to the real Hitler.
The plot weaves together the farcical experience of Jojo and his pal Yorki (played by Archie Yates) who ineptly try to fit into the psychotic training of the Hitler Youth, with the contrasting story of Jojos’ mother, a German Resistance member who hides a young Jewish woman in her attic. The roles, played respectively by Scarlett Johansson and Thomasin McKenzie, are wonderfully three dimensional. In storylines which could so easily have become hackneyed, Jojo’s mum balances extreme courage with deep concern and love for her wayward Nazi child and the young Jewish woman she hides. And the portrayal of the young woman is memorable for a more desperate, learned toughness, while living on the edge of fear and despair, and a longing to lead a normal life where the first thing she says she will do with her freedom is: “dance”.
Luckily for the New Zealand director of this film, who describes himself as a ‘Polynesian Jew’, he does not live in Britain and has no public connection to Jeremy Corbyn. If he did, he would be subjected to a barrage of smears and abuse, accused of anti semitism, Hitler apologism, and all sorts of lies. Instead, the film has largely been given an easy time by those who lead anti-semitism smear campaigns. This allows me to simply encourage people to go to see a great, anti fascist film. So far, there’s no need to also defend the film from false anti-semitism propaganda. Yet, there have been a few critics who claimed that the film was too soft and suggested there were ‘good Nazis’. It doesn’t do this: any goodness displayed by characters is in opposition to Nazism, racism and bigotry. The film suggests rightly that there were good Germans.
Every now and then, a book or film comes along and helps to remind us that unless we see human history freshly and clearly, we do not really see it at all. The moments in Jojo Rabbit which deal with the real, murderous nature of Nazism are amongst the most powerful I have ever seen. I think that was because I felt I was seeing that kind of evil for the first time. In a uniquely quirky comedy, that requires an incredible level of skill and sensitivity. In some ways, Taika Waititi follows in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin. But Waititi is creating his own path.