On Sunday, President Donald Trump watched a football game aboard Air Force One on his way back from his Florida home, and he also threatened to attack Iranian cultural sites. Later the same evening, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave out its annual Golden Globe Awards, snubbing the film that serves as the best illustration of our current political and cultural predicament: “Jojo Rabbit.”
Taika Waititi’s movie is about a ten-year-old boy who is a fervent Nazi until, just before Germany loses the war, he falls in love with a Jewish girl who is hiding in his attic. The film has been criticized for making light of unspeakable crimes. My colleague Richard Brody objected not so much to the film’s gags as to the empathy it shows to the haters, and, indeed, the movie can be read as a beautifully rendered version of a certain journalistic genre: the condescending portrayal of the misguided and misinformed Trump supporter. But it can also be read as an account of the profound and willful idiocy that underlies political tragedy. Seen this way—and this is the way I’ve seen it both times I’ve watched “Jojo Rabbit”—the movie is as brave and insightful a portrait of autocracy as any contemporary work of art has offered.
The protagonist, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), has an imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. Early in the movie, the Hitler of Jojo’s imagination (played by Waititi) implores Jojo to disregard the opinions of others: “People used to say a lot of nasty things about me. ‘This guy is a lunatic!’ ‘Look at that psycho, he’s going to get us all killed!’ ” Those people are right, of course, but, at the moment when imaginary Hitler is speaking to Jojo, the real Hitler’s power is so immense that those true statements sound absurd to Jojo and millions of other Germans. They believe in Hitler and what he tells them.
The movie’s most colorful propagandist is Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson), who is the source of much of Jojo’s knowledge about Jews. Once upon a time, she tells a group of Hitler Youth, a Jew mated with a fish, and, since then, the Jews have been covered in scales. “The Aryans are one thousand times more civilized and advanced than any other race,” she adds, to the boys’ delight. “Now get your things together, kids. It’s time to burn some books!” Later, she provides a lesson in conspiracy thinking, when she tells the story of her uncle: “A Jew hypnotized him, and he became a massive drunk and a gambler, and he cheated on his wife, and he had an inappropriate relationship with my sister. And then he drowned, in an unrelated accident, but it was Jew’s fault.”
Up to about the middle of the movie, the jokes are palatable and the parallels to the present day are clear. There is the scene in which Jojo and his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), play out a version of many Americans’ holiday-dinner experiences. Rosie is happy that the Allies are advancing. “Goddammit, why does that make you happy?” Jojo asks. “You hate your country that much?” Rosie explains, “I love my country. It’s the war I hate. It’s pointless and stupid, and the sooner we have peace, the better.” Jojo is outraged. “We will crush our enemies into dust! And, when they are destroyed, we shall use their brains as toilets!” he says, slamming his little hands on the white tablecloth with green trim. Rosie moves to end the debate. “O.K., no more politics,” she says. “Dinner is neutral ground. Table is Switzerland. Let’s eat.” Imaginary Hitler is at the table with them, but only Jojo can see him.
But then the jokes get harder to swallow. The Gestapo shows up at the house. We don’t know what they are looking for, but we know that there is a lot to hide in Jojo’s house: Rosie is in the resistance, and Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), the Jewish girl, lives in the attic. The gag here is in the heil-Hitlering: every new person who enters the scene greets every other individually, with a “Heil Hitler,” until we get to ten call-and-response “Heil Hitler”s. There are several heil-Hitlering sequences—the scene drags on and on, and the dread builds. The Gestapo men, dressed in black overcoats and hats, are ridiculous and terrifying at once.
Spoiler alert: resistance proves to be not only deathly dangerous but also ineffectual. As far as we know, all that Rosie has been caught doing is distributing tiny ribbon-like flyers with the words “Free Germany” on them. For this, she is hanged in the town square, where Jojo happens upon her body. His grief looks ridiculous (he tries, and fails, to tie his hanged mother’s shoe) and his rage is misdirected (he tries, and fails, to kill Elsa by stabbing her). This is another devastating lesson: the great hollowing-out force of totalitarianism renders even tragedy absurd.
The only actual feat of heroism in the movie—the only act that involves sacrifice and has consequences—is committed by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a gay Nazi who, decked out in his end-of-days uniform adorned with red fringe, spits at Jojo and calls him a “dirty Jew” in order to save him from being executed by Russian soldiers, who, in short order, open machine fire on Klenzendorf and others. Justice that follows totalitarianism is no justice at all.
What “Jojo Rabbit” has to say about power, history, and humanity is terrifying. We, Americans and humans, generally prefer other portrayals. On Sunday, the HBO series “Chernobyl” won a Golden Globe for best limited series. The series offers a version of the 1986 nuclear accident in which evil people who know exactly what they are doing exposed millions of people to radiation poisoning and then covered it up. In the series, they are opposed by people who are heroic, pure, and capable of great accomplishments, such as conducting a thorough investigation, even under totalitarianism. In its way, this is a comforting story, clearly preferable to having to consider that tens of millions of people died during the Second World War because of a maniac whom no one took seriously until he was suddenly in power, and whose insane ideas had incredible traction.
The ideas of history and politics contained in “Jojo Rabbit” are as accurate as they are terrifying. We don’t want to imagine that absurd incompetents can cause enormous human tragedy, and we don’t want to think that tragedy, whether it’s enormous or not, can appear absurd. Either possibility has dire implications for our own moment. When the President of the United States is tweeting an imaginary “legal notice” of intent to bomb other countries, and when he announces and repeats his intention to target cultural sites, which is a war crime, and when he sincerely believes that this is the best way to be President, we would prefer to think that, in global history and politics, the absurd cannot be tragic and the tragic cannot be absurd. But the truth of the matter is that we are careening into our darkest moment yet, and we look ridiculous doing it. There is a movie about that.