These are the last words I will ever write about Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. After almost 4 months of fielding near-constant rudeness from the film’s fans, I’ve gotten tired of it. I’m tired of trying to explain to people who won’t listen why I found this film so harmful and upsetting. I’m just going to say my piece here, make my full and complete case, and then never discuss it again. This is my final statement on the film.
Jojo Rabbit let us know everything we needed to know about it as soon as its marketing campaign began. From the beginning, the film’s posters and trailers billed it as “An Anti-Hate Satire,” the kind of corporate mishmash terminology familiar to people who have watched massive media entities try to carefully worm their way into praise for “inclusion” and “diversity.” It was hilarious, then, to see a film that seemed by its nature so edgy and dangerous instantly defang itself. It was an obvious attempt to head off social media backlash to the premise and imagery. “Don’t worry,” it said, “this film is anti-hate, which means not pro-Nazi, and it’s a satire, which means nothing in it is real.” The use of “satire” in particular rankled; over the past decade, the term has become an easy way to deflect criticism for bad jokes, a way of saying “but I didn’t really mean it.”
It’s more often a tactic of the right than the left, though. Youtuber PewDiePie has made a habit of brushing off questions about his frequent bigoted remarks and boosting of white supremacist channels by calling it all satire and refusing to explain further. Other public-facing white supremacists and neo-Nazis have also called their statements satire as a public defense, only to turn right back to their followers and keep saying them, because to them it’s all real. What, exactly, is being satirized here, and how? It’s not clear. What is clear is how meaningless the term has become. Calling your work satirical these days amounts to little more than saying “I don’t really mean anything I’m saying, so you can’t criticize me for it.” Despite being an ostensibly leftist work, Jojo Rabbit has more in common with those cowardly right-wing hacks than anything else. It hides behind its “anti-hate satire” label to excuse its refusal to actively engage with the implications of its premise. In other words, it calls itself a satire so that it doesn’t have to actually satirize anything.
A good way of framing the problem with Jojo Rabbit is through a classic dynamic in Jewish comedy: the schlemiel and the schlimazel. The classic explanation of these archetypes goes, “The schlemiel always spills his soup, and the schlimazel always has the soup spilled on him.” In other words, the former is a klutz and an oaf, and the latter is an unlucky object of schadenfreude. These characters can exist independently of one another as well, and often do. Who is the schlemiel in Jojo Rabbit? The easiest answer is that all of the Nazi characters fill this role. After all, they are almost all depicted as clumsy, stupid, and incompetent. I’ll get into the uselessness of this characterization of Nazis later. For now I’ll say that I don’t think all of the Nazis of Jojo Rabbit can be accurately defined as schlemiel. Consider that the film takes place very near the end of World War II, and a running thread is how badly Germany is losing. The Nazi war effort is prone to constant mishaps and accidents. Failure, and probably death, is imminent. In one scene, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) has asked his subordinate Finkel (Alfie Allen) to find some German Shepherds to assist with the war. Finkel is revealed to have rounded up a group of stereotypically dressed shepherds (as in, sheep herders), to which Klenzendorf sighs and does a facepalm. The unlucky recipient of Finkel’s foolish error is Klenzendorf. He is the schlimazel.
Why does this matter? It’s key to understanding the fundamental problem with Jojo Rabbit, which is its perspective. We laugh at the foibles of the schlemiel, who may seem innocent and naive in his mistakes. But when we laugh at the schlimazel, it’s out of pity and sympathy. The schlemiel is funny because his mistakes can be kept at a distance. The schlimazel is funny because his problems, the problems caused by other people, are relatable. In the schlemiel, we see other people. In the schlimazel, we see ourselves. Why does Jojo Rabbit expect us to see ourselves in Nazis?
The other concern here is the sheer toothlessness of the film’s comedy. It draws to mind the American liberal inclination to mock the right as stupid or hypocritical while letting their actual ideas and actions slip by. This has been the mission of shows like The Daily Show for ages now. It allows liberals to feel good about themselves without having to do the hard work of fighting reactionary ideology head-on. It also unwittingly provides the right great fodder for their own campaigns. Donald Trump notably rode to success by firing up conservatives against an elite class who belittles them. Whether or not their beliefs are right or moral is irrelevant. The point is that as a tactic to discredit your political opponent, it’s pretty useless. As evidence of this, I encourage you to look for white supremacists or neo-Nazis whose minds were changed after seeing the depiction of Nazis in Jojo Rabbit. In fact, while you’re at it, take a look and see if any of those people cared even a little bit about Waititi playing Adolf Hitler, a decision which Waititi again and again boasted would really piss these people off. None of them care one way or the other about this film. That’s because the film isn’t for them, it’s for self-satisfied liberals who want to be told that they are good people for holding their milquetoast ideas about diversity and acceptance.
Let’s talk about Elsa, played by Thomasin Mackenzie. She’s a Jewish girl being hidden by Rosie (Scarlett Johannsson), the mother of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis). The film introduces her as a horror movie monster. She skulks in the shadows, just out of sight. Her fingers slowly curl around a doorframe, like a ghost in a Guillermo del Toro movie. Jojo is terrified of her right away. Is this because the film is from his perspective, and Nazi brainwashing has conditioned him to see Jews as hideous monsters? If so, this might be an interesting choice. I don’t think this is a fair reading of the scene, however. As it continues, Elsa assaults Jojo, disarms him, and threatens his life if he tells anyone about her. This was the moment when I realized how disastrously misguided Jojo Rabbit was. Somehow, in a film about a Jewish girl forced into hiding during the Holocaust, she is made out to be in a position of power over the Nazi Youth whose house she is hiding in. It is offensively ludicrous that a girl in Elsa’s position would taunt and threaten and toy with a boy who holds her life in his hands. It reminded me of the film Zootopia, which presents an oppressed minority of predator animals in a world run by prey animals as a corollary to real-life racism. But in the history of Zootopia’s world, predator animals used to be vicious, fearsome killers. The message seems to be that while racism may be justifiable based on history, it doesn’t make sense in a modern society. Jojo Rabbit also presents a message of “tolerance” that seems predicated on the idea that bigotry is wrong despite being logical.
Elsa softens up to Jojo, of course, but that development presents a whole host of other issues. Here we have yet another film where the responsibility of rehabilitating someone’s racism falls to one of their victims. In a film that genuinely satirized Nazism, Jojo might have come to see the Nazi leaders in his life as foolish and vapid and hypocritical, and through that come to question what they taught him. Instead, Jojo’s transformation comes mostly through an adolescent crush on Elsa. The intention here, I think, was to show that coming into contact with an actual Jewish person would contradict the propaganda Jojo had been inundated with. He would come to realize that the lies he’d been fed about Jews weren’t true, because they didn’t apply to her. This notion has its own problems, of course, chief among them that the only two resulting implications are “not all Jews are monsters” or “all Jews are saints”. Both of these ideas flatten the Jewish people such that antisemitism seems illogical. But the evil of antisemitism doesn’t come from it being illogical, it comes from it being immoral. Antisemitism isn’t merely stupid, it’s wrong. Jojo Rabbit skirts around making an ethical argument, perhaps because it knows its cloying dramatic sensibility can’t sustain it. But the real issue, as I said, is that this problematic intention doesn’t even come across. It’s Jojo’s attraction to Elsa that changes his mind in the end. I don’t think Waititi fully understands the fire he’s playing with here. A classic literary stereotype of Jewish women paints us as lustful seductresses who steal good Christian men away from their good Christian wives and into sin. Why is the only Jewish character in this film about the Holocaust such an empty, harmful stereotype?
Compare it to the characters of Shoshanna and Zoller in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, another irreverant take on the Holocaust. In that film, Shoshanna is a Jewish woman hiding in plain sight in Nazi-occupied France. Zoller, a Nazi war hero, falls for her, and tries to woo her. He does so by making it clear how famous and powerful he is, but also by trying to casually downplay it. He wants her to think that he doesn’t care about his status as a Nazi icon, and might even be troubled by it. He wants to seem sensitive and intelligent. Shoshanna doesn’t buy it for a second. She rebuffs him again and again, only acquiescing to his interest when it’s clear it would be dangerous to deny him. The film ends up asserting that she was right to do so. Zoller kills Shoshanna in the end, though not before her plot to murder the entire Nazi high command has been set in motion. When her film plays for the Nazi audience at the climactic moment, it’s not a plea for understanding and sympathy. It’s a final kiss-off before she blows them all to hell. Inglourious Basterds understands what Jojo Rabbit doesn’t, that Jews shouldn’t bother to make an effort to reform Nazis who seem amenable to it.
This is where I want to get into how Jojo Rabbit diverges from Caging Skies, the novel on which it is based. Besides the addition of the imaginary Hitler, the most significant change Waititi makes is in the ending. Jojo Rabbit’s ending sees Berlin captured by the Allies, and Jojo running home to Elsa not to tell her that she’s no longer in danger, but to lie to her that the Nazis won the war so that she won’t leave him. Elsa sees through him right away, but remains sympathetic to the boy. The film ends with them joyously dancing together in the streets, finally free.
Caging Skies ends quite differently. In the novel, Elsa believes Jojo’s lie, and the story continues well into their adult lives. The two are eventually married, though Elsa continues to live in hiding in Jojo’s house, still believing that the Nazis are in power. Eventually, Jojo can’t maintain the lie any longer, and the novel ends with Elsa leaving him after discovering the truth. I find this ending much more powerful and honest. The film’s ending, with the Jew and the (ex-)Nazi united in hopeful dance, is insulting in its childish conception of everything about its context. A more honest version of this ending would see Elsa, no longer having to pretend to be Jojo’s friend for her own safety, fleeing his house as soon as she learns the city has been liberated. A smarter film, one that presented a perspective from someone other than fascists, would show the horror of Elsa being forced to befriend a boy who is so inundated with antisemitic propaganda that he doesn’t even see her as human. It’s a fascinating dynamic that is true to history, and not a patronizing neoliberal fantasy.
The problem is that Elsa really isn’t much of a character at all. More importantly, she could hardly be said to be a Jewish character. Yes, she fills the role of the suffering Jew in Nazi Germany, but only to facilitate the redemptive arc of Jojo. What about her is Jewish? At no point does she communicate any Jewish ideas or themes or perspectives. Vitally, it is her apparent “normalcy” to Jojo that spurs on his transformation. The film seems to say that Jews didn’t deserve the Holocaust because “they were just normal people, like anyone else.” But this idea gives into the dichotomy between “normal people” and “not normal people.” Why couldn’t this film be a celebration of what makes Jewish teachings and culture so starkly different to Nazism? Why must Jews be absorbed into a generic, neutral “humanity” to earn salvation?
This is why I get so angry at people who defend Jojo Rabbit on the basis of Waititi being a Jew himself. That is far and away the most common response whenever I openly criticize the film. His Jewishness is used not to absolve the film’s sins, but to deny their existence. The argument is that film made by a Jewish person about the Holocaust can’t be picked apart, because it is by definition an expression of the filmmaker’s personal relation to that trauma and history. I am, of course, absolutely sympathetic to this idea in general. For example, I am consistently troubled by the vitriol leveled at trans artists who express complicated and disagreeable feelings about their own experiences. My problem with this defense of Waititi is the lack of Jewish perspective in Jojo Rabbit. He may be Jewish, but this isn’t a Jewish film. It contains no Jewish point of view. And no, Elsa name-dropping golems absolutely does not count. This, more than anything, is what infuriates me so much about Jojo Rabbit. In my original Letterboxd review of the film, I said it was more a Nazi movie than a Jewish movie, a line which more than any other has led to people spewing misinformed and confused vitriol in my direction. To them, I invite explanation of what else I’m supposed to call a film about the Holocaust with a cast that is 99% comprised of goofy, harmless, sympathetic Nazis. I don’t think that Waititi’s Jewish background immunizes him from criticism for a film with nothing particularly Jewish about it, especially not from other Jews.
As I said, this will be the last time I talk about Jojo Rabbit. This article contains all of my thoughts on the film, except for what I’ve expressed in other published pieces. I’m done listening to the clueless, excessively rude comments from the film’s fans, and I hope I’ve addressed all of the most common counter-arguments here. I know this piece is a lot less casual and friendly than my usual output, but my feelings on this film are very raw and my concerns are very serious. Thank you for reading.
9 thoughts on “My Final Words on ‘Jojo Rabbit’”
Esther this is really fantastic. Thank you so much for writing this.
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did it ever occur to you that you are just wrong? This was my favourite movie of the year for me because of how powerful it really is. Personally, I think you went into the movie with a judgement already and you watched it with that judgement tainting the whole movie.
This is about a boy who was brought up to believe something and in turn learns how everything he was told is wrong and with that information, started to make the right decisions and be a better person.
this resonated today with all the racism out there. Little kids are being fed misinformation and taught to hate. this movie shows the bravery that is needed to go against your peers and change.
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Thanks for sharing this. We need more brave people to speak out when they have a differing opinion from the masses.
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Thank you for writing this. I too had the same problems with this movie and people have been tearing me to shreds for daring to criticize it. I can’t even imagine what you’ve been going through with the films hardcore stans.
Thank you for a very sincere and strongly felt piece. Its founding premise, however, is built upon a peculiar intellectual paradox – though it is not entirely atypical.
You write this,
‘As evidence of this, I encourage you to look for white supremacists or neo-Nazis whose minds were changed after seeing the depiction of Nazis in Jojo Rabbit. In fact, while you’re at it, take a look and see if any of those people cared even a little bit about Waititi playing Adolf Hitler, a decision which Waititi again and again boasted would really piss these people off. None of them care one way or the other about this film. That’s because the film isn’t for them, it’s for self-satisfied liberals who want to be told that they are good people for holding their milquetoast ideas about diversity and acceptance.’
‘It’s a final kiss-off before she blows them all to hell. Inglourious Basterds understands what Jojo Rabbit doesn’t, that Jews shouldn’t bother to make an effort to reform Nazis who seem amenable to it.’
If the reformation of the Nazis isn’t for the Jews to bother with, then why should Waititi care about how the Neo-Nazis respond to, or worse still, change because of his film? The clear (and I daresay, convenient) stratification you achieve in your piece (and that Tarantino achieves in his cartoon) is because of the identification of the Nazi – and by extension, Nazism – an an enclosed object that belongs to the past and whose definition is hermetically sealed. This is to say, a ‘period’ prop, that ‘once was’ (a phrase that is, incidentally, the very foundational principle of Tarantino’s inclinations). I venture that Waititi actually adopts a more nuanced and sophisticated view of the situation: he employs heightened period-based cosmetics to instead mount a commentary on the present, on the state of things as they are, on regimes of propaganda, indoctrination and radicalisation as they exist in the modern world, on Nazism as an activity that has far outlived the historical Nazis. Your piece fluctuates conveniently between the expression of ideological, even ethical stances, and journalistic recollection – in short, between the eternal and the topical – but without warning or a necessary distinction. Therefore, you can decry Jojo for being a Nazi who is undeserving of repair or reformation, and also mention the various strategies Trump has employed to confuse and fool his constituencies, within the same piece, without the necessary acknowledgment of how you are chasing your own tail, essentially. I believe Waititi attempts to actually attempt to address both the mechanisms that perpetuate venom and its unsuspecting recipient within the same film, and this is something to value.
His failure resides in his uncritical celebration of conventional, movie-love as a refuge from a genocide – which is a rather foolish and even insensitive regurgitation of the worst tendencies of Hollywood – and for this he cannot be forgiven. I believe your piece addresses this through your admiration of Caging Skies, and how it actually institutes a more ‘realistic’ method by which the Jewish character adopts agency and processes trauma (on the other hand, Elsa forgets her oppression in a second and begins to dance). You make a really good point here. I am reminded of Chantal Akerman, who said, while talking of Roman Polanski’s ‘The Pianist’: ‘…the problem with his film is that he seems to think a piano chord can rescue a person from the Holocaust’.
Not liking the movie is fine. But you write that the “cast is 99% comprised of goofy, harmless, sympathetic Nazis.” That is literally not true. The main character Jojo is not really a Nazi. He is a brainwashed German boy who learns to understand that Jews are not evil caricatures. His mother is an anti-Nazi and working with the resistance hiding the Jewish girl in her home. And of course Elsa is the Jewish girl. Those three are the main characters of the movie and take up most of the screen time. After that you have Taika who is a figment of the boy’s imagination and he is hardly sympathetic. Next is Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson. Of these only Rockwell’s character could be considered sympathetic since he is presented as gay and almost indifferent to the war. The only other Nazi who could be considered sympathetic is Alfie Allen who has little screen time. So if you want to talk percentages that’s about 30% of the characters. The movie clearly shows how Nazi totalitarianism is a complete failure. I’m not sure how the film is ‘harmful’. No one who is a real Nazi [or right wing fascist] is going to watch the film and think it’s sympathetic to their cause. And no one else would watch the film and think they would need to suddenly become a Nazi. I enjoyed the film. I hate Nazi’s. The film is a call for tolerance in a world full of unreasonable and absurd hate. Making fun of Nazism as a satire is a good way to get across that message. Thank you.
ok great article and i’m not trying to invalidate everything you said but there are a few things that really bothered me as i read it:
“It reminded me of the film Zootopia, which presents an oppressed minority of predator animals in a world run by prey animals as a corollary to real-life racism.” the world in zootopia is run by predators. they clearly hold institutional power: the mayor is a lion, he has a sheep assisting him only to appeal to the “prey” vote, the police department is full of predators. in the beginning you might even think preys are the minority there, and this is what makes zootopia such a messy analogy to racism, one that could (and maybe did?) completely backfire. they are constantly belittled by predators, but at the same time they try to use biology to justify bigotry against predators. i agree about the message you mentioned, because it’s a really messy movie, but in no way that world is run by preys. they’re the numerical majority but they are *not* running the world. the movie can’t decide who’s actually in power.
also, elsa doesn’t immediately “see right through him” in the movie. she believes him though she’s clearly confused, and for a second it does look like he’ll keep lying to her and keep her there forever. he doesn’t, but it definitely looks like he could for a few minutes. might be a nod to the end of the book? if I had read it I’d be very scared when watching the movie for the first time.