Jojo Rabbit Taike Waititi (USA; 2019) Roman Davis, Scarlette Johanson, Thomasin McKenzie
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 29 Jan 2020; ticket: £10.75
Mock Hitler Soup
Taike Waititi’s Jojo rabbit re-imagines Nazi German as an idyll set in a Californian suburb. Even the corpses we see hanging from the gibbet in the town’s market square ( one of which is Jojo’s mother) look decorously pendant as if they were waiting for a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Like Spielberg before him Waititi confirms the ability of the suburban imagination to absorb anything the world might throw at it.
Spielberg’s films are all consuming monsters that can swallow up any genre or situation and regurgitate them in a form that fits into the straight tree lined streets, the manicured lawns, screen doors and mild eccentricities of American suburbia, a la Fernando Valley.
With ET one of the biggest grossing movies of the 20th century, Spielberg expanded the ambition of the suburban ethos so that it swallowed up the sci fi genre. Cute, boxed and branded like a breakfast cereal, ET neutralised the critical and disturbing aspects of its sci-fi heritage. The idea of developing the genre to serve as either a warning to or a critical perception of the American way of life was inverted in ET. The sci-fi genre in Spielberg’s hands becomes a validation of middle American values, of individualism in particular. He does for ‘80’s America what Frank Capra had done with his 30’s and 40’s movies: legitimising American values despite the evidence that in many ways they were no more than a chimera.
And, Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit does for the Nazi’s what ET did for Sci-fi. His film like some strange acid dissolves the Nazis in the comfort bath of the suburban ethos. It uses one of Spielberg’s favourite notions, the imaginary friend, to present a substantiation of Hitler in a mock humorous key. Like ET, Hitler has his otherness neutered and assumed into the middle America psyche. If burlesque mimicry is the cheapest form of humour, then this stage Hitler parody, amounts to a marked down comic stock.
And the audiences: ‘like’. Cheap degraded laughs like cheap degraded food is easy to swallow. Iannucci’s ‘Death of Stalin’ pulled off a similar stunt. Both Hitler and Nazism with its obsessive mandatory rituals, are remote from the experience of most consumers of media; hence both are safe easy targets to exploit as a send up. Most of today’s viewers have only a vague awareness of the events in Europe in the middle of the last century; for the most part, unless you are Jewish or Roma, familiarity is almost at the level of a folk story, a de-intensified memory of history. People have little knowledge and no experience of the actual situation in Germany of the 30’s and 40’s. So both Hitler and Nazism can be targets of an eidetic parody in which their murderous brutality as content can be extracted and separated out from their visual image, leaving behind an empty form that can be played out as a comic device comprising gags, mild eccentricity manic behaviour and of course, innocence.
The aggressive fervour with which Waititi’s scenario plays with anachronistic effects, such as the sound track’s use of a range of pop music (the Beetles) heavy metal and jazz, lends a contemporary allure to some of the sequences, all that is missing is a home delivery company called Ubermensch. And when the Hitler Jugend engage in a bit of book burning, it looks like it might be a fun thing to do. At this point you might pause to wonder if the film is suggesting its theme might be an analogy for Trump’s America. But there is not enough parellism of effect to extrapolate this purpose fromWaititi’s direction. The anachronism’s, the ‘cool’ language the contemporary jokes are all part of a calculated affect: to soak the material for maximum laughs and extract a sentimental politically correct morality tale out of the situation. It would have been a film made with a different intent if Jojo had had Donald Trump as his imaginary friend.
At the core of Waititi’s script there is something rotten and dishonest. The death of Rosie Jojo’s mother has an abstracted exploitative quality which is unsurprising given that the parodic goof-ball form of ‘Jojo Rabbit’ generates relationships based on the scripted directions to actors, not on the creation and exhibition of affect. There is a moment when in front of Gestapo police, Klenzendorf (the buffoon character) discovers that Elsa ( the Jewish hideaway) is not Jojo’s sister. Instead of denouncing her he conceals this knowledge from the Gestapo goons. The script renders Klenzendorf ‘s behaviour as that of a friendly eccentric Californian suburbanite; but members of the Wehrmacht weren’t like eccentric suburban neighbours. This scripted response of Klenzendorf is simply part of the normalisation the film promotes: sadists are really in their hearts just nice guys.
Iannucci’s Death of Stalin and Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit are both exercises in transposing. Iannucci’s movie transposes the machinations of Stalin’s court to the setting of luvable London gangsters. Waititi, transposes Hitler’s Germany to the American Suburbs.
This shifting of time and space works as a device for exploiting humour and cheap laughs, extending the Mel Brook’s Springtime for Hitler routine into a whole feature. The question is how long before Mao Zedong becomes the next subject for a Whacky Commie Movie?
And anyone for al-Baghdadi the wicked caliph?