Burlesque and Political Messages in Jojo Rabbit

by Jordan Wedderburn

I. Introduction

Films throughout time have varied and evolved in either their types, genres, or through what techniques were used in the making of the film. Also, there have been many works that focused on some aspects of the Second World War, whether it be on the perspective of the Jewish people, the perspective of Adolf Hitler, or the perspective of the Germans that supported Hitler during the war. For Jojo Rabbit by Taika Waititi, there is a sense of burlesque, containing absurdities and comically exaggerated imitations of Germans during the Second World War.

Jojo Rabbit is a comedy-drama film directed and written in 2019 by Taika Waititi, based on the novel Caging Skies written by Christine Leunens in 2004. 10-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler is a young German boy who is a member of the Hilterjugend, also known as the Hitler Youth. Because he is now 10, he is entering the Jungvolk, which is a separate section of the Hilterjugend. This organization of the Nazi Party was the sole organization in Germany at the time and was created for training and educating male youth in Nazi principles. After an incapacitating injury, causing Jojo to be removed from the program, he is left with the task of spreading propaganda around the town and collecting scrap metal for the war effort while his mother is away from home. While home alone, he discovers Elsa Korr, a teenage Jewish girl who has been hiding in his late sister’s room’s walls, who he must keep quiet about to avoid trouble for her and his mother.

This essay will argue that adding comedy and burlesque in a film can be an effective tool for filmmaking and political messages. To understand the political implications of Jojo Rabbit, this essay will first identify the appropriate typology and genre of the film and how it is shown within the film. Second, the essay will give analyze certain reoccurring ideas in the film and relate them to comedy and the message of the film. Lastly, the essay will examine the propaganda in the film and how it affected the Germans. Overall, this will support the idea of comedy and burlesque being an effective tool for filmmaking and political messages, especially in the case of the film Jojo Rabbit by Taika Waititi.

II. Typology, Genre and Techniques of Jojo Rabbit 

Jojo Rabbit has high political content and high political intent. The content was high as it included Nazi Germany, wars, and hatred against Jewish people. The intent was also high because the film still exposed the not too far the truth behaviour and mentalities of those who supported the Nazi party. The method used to do so is primarily burlesque. Burlesque can be defined as the “use or imitation of serious matter or manner, made amusing by the creation of an incongruity between style and subject “(Jump 1). The film is also classified to have a comedy-drama genre, having moments of comedy as well as moments of seriousness. The contrast allows for both aspects to shine in the film. In terms of the techniques involved in film production, Taika Waititi seemed to have an emphasis on a formalistic approach, even including an imaginary best friend version of Adolf Hitler in the film. Formalism, by contrast, emphasizes aesthetic forms and symbols rather than objective reality (Haas 56). Having a formalistic approach in the film can allow for more edits and effects that can help convey concepts better to the audience. In the case of Taika Waititi’s depiction of Adolf Hitler, he was able to visually have the character be included in the film because the film was not intending to have a realistic approach. The formalism approach also allows for Yorkie, Jojo’s real best friend, to stay alive through the movie and provide dialogue. Had the film been realistic, the young boy would have likely died while he was a child soldier.

III. Burlesque or Reflective of Reality

In the movie, three notable things are emphasized to the point burlesque, the phrase “heil Hitler”, the impression that Nazi Germans have of Jewish people, and the idea that Hitler is Jojo’s #1 best friend. The “heil Hitler” phrase, when it appeared in the film, was often said repeatedly. There are three scenes where the phrase “heil Hitler” is emphasized to a seemingly burlesque scale. In the introduction scene, Jojo is getting ready to spend the weekend in the Hitler Youth program. During his preparation, he talks to himself about his devotion to [his] country’s saviour, Adolf Hitler. Adolf appears in the scene, being a goofy version of the real Adolf Hitler. Although Jojo is still feeling anxiety, Adolf is supportive of him, followed by Adolf telling him “Heil him, man” in a very friendly manner. This is followed by a comedic exchange of the pronunciation of “heil Hitler”, and once Jojo gets it right, they both chance it like a battle cry. This use of the phrase “heil Hitler” is meant to make fun of the fact that people would be encouraged by the phrase “heil Hitler” and even use it in casual conversation. In the next scene, Jojo and Elsa are visited by the Gestapo, who are secret police on the behalf of the Nazi Party. As they come in, all of them greet Jojo with the phrase “heil Hitler” which he returns to them. Klenzendorf, Jojo’s mentor, along with his assistant, Freddy Finkel, enters the scene to check up on Jojo along with a bike. They both exchange a series of “heil [Hitlers]” with the Gestapo, further adding to the emphasis on the phrase. They are even explicitly aware of their excessive use of the phrase as when Klenzendorf asks if he missed anything from the conversation, Deertz, the leader of the Gestapo group, says that they were mere “Heil Hitlering the boy and then heil Hitlering yourself and of course heil Hitlering Freddy Finkel”. When Elsa reappears and attempts to impersonate Inge, the phrase of “heil Hitler” returns. However, as a Jewish Woman, Elsa hesitates to say such a thing but quickly conforms for the sake of her survival. In this instance, the phrase was more dramatic than comedic as it held more weight coming from Elsa, who was the rabbit to these tigers in a sense. The final notable scene centered around the phrase “heil Hitler” is the last scene including Adolf. In this scene, Adolf has become a mess and Jojo has come to no longer look up to him. After trying to intimidate Jojo into once again worshiping him, Jojo has had enough and throws away the armband that Adolf tries to make him wear, revealing a pathetic side of Adolf. Under these circumstances, Adolf begs for Jojo to “heil [him]” once again, this time Jojo refuses and kicks him out of the window. This contrasts with the first scene when Jojo found strength in the phrase. Now he has let go of it, his praise of Hitler, and has discarded his imaginary best friend Adolf.

Moving onto the impression that the Nazi Germans had of the Jewish people, there are many instances when they saw harsh or ridiculous things in terms of what a Jew is and what they can do, and how they behave as if they were not human. Notable events are of Jojo trying to educate himself on what Jews are like. Unsurprisingly, despite being told that they are normal humans, he refuses to believe in the idea, reflecting how delusional he truly was. This idea is reinforced by a scene of Elsa drawing a picture of where “Jews” live. After finishing, Elsa hands the picture to the picture to Jojo, revealing a goofy picture of Jojo and the word “Dummkopf” underneath it. Jojo does not understand why Elsa drew his head and tells her that she was supposed to draw where Jews live, to which she replies that “that is where [they] live”. Dummkopf means stupid head in German, which if you know German is comedic but it is also a statement that there is something wrong with his head and his false impression of Jews.

The last notable idea of note is the idea that Jojo wants his best friend to be Adolf Hitler. Adolf’s appearance throughout the film and typically gives Jojo support in his way. However, this version of Adolf Hitler is not real at all. Jojo has never actually met Adolf Hitler, which explains why his appearance and personality are dissimilar from the real Adolf Hitler. Jojo is so infatuated with Adolf Hitler that he is willing to put his real best and only friend, Yorkie into second place. When discussing it with Yorkie, he is confused about him not being Jojo’s best friend for Hitler, but Jojo explains that the first-place spot is reserved for Hitler, and unless he is Hitler himself in disguise, he should be satisfied with second place. This has comedic elements in it, such as Yorkie saying that he is “just a kid in a fat kid’s body”, but the reality of the situation is that during the Nazi era, many people prioritized Hitler over other people in their lives, despite now even meeting him. In all of these cases, there were comedy aspects, but it was not an unrealistic comedy.

IV. Propaganda and Political Message

The final point of the essay is focusing on the political criticism involved in the message of the film. Although we are meant to laugh at the comedic and burlesque aspects of the film, we must be critical of the effects of things such as propaganda, the source behind the Nazi’s power. To give some historical background, although propaganda did not begin with Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda in Hitler’s first government, his Nazi propaganda is one of the main reasons why propaganda is seen in such a negative light (Welch). In 1892, Georgi Plekhanov made the distinction between propagandists and agitators: “A propagandist presents many ideas to one or a few persons; an agitator presents only one or a few ideas but presents them to a whole mass of people” (Cull et al. 4). However, the Nazis did not distinguish the two and sought to persuade and indoctrinate all Germans (Cull et al. 4). This translated to the film, which showcased many Germans who were persuaded by the Nazi parties as well as the act of attempting to persuade people. The most notable cases that involve propaganda is when Jojo spreads flyers of Hitler around. Jojo is assigned with the task of spreading propaganda throughout the town. Thus, a montage of him sticking propaganda to walls plays out, even showing on with Hitler, having a menacing face that needs to be brushed away to seem neutral. This scene shows that propaganda can be used in very persuasive manners, and often does not reveal the true intent of the propagandists. It is also expressed through a means of burlesque, including a shifting image on a paper of Hitler.

V. Conclusion

This essay has argued that comedy and burlesque can be used as tools for enhancing the storytelling and messages to be gained from the film through examining the phrase “Heil Hitler”, the impression that Germans have of Jewish people, and the idea of Hitler being your best friend, as well as the parody of propaganda in the film. Jojo Rabbit’s high political content and intent, and genre being comedy and drama both profit from the amount of burlesque in the film and having formalism included in the film is another means to express the burlesque intended for the film.

Works Cited

Cull, Nicholas John., et al. Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500

to the Present. ABC-CLIO, 2003.

Welch, David. The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda. Routledge, 2006.

Haas, Elizabeth, et al. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films. Routledge,

2015.

Jojo Rabbit. Directed by Taika Waititi, performances by Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin

McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, and Archie Yates, Disney, 2019.

Jump, John D. Burlesque. Taylor & Francis, 2017.

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