by Graeme Thomson
Filmmakers have often had a difficult time representing serious terrors like Hitler and the Holocaust. When the subject is sugarcoated, the consequences are underscored; but when the subject is represented honestly, the actions are almost glorified. Humour is often society’s tool to walk the fine line between withholding information about a situation, and representing it honestly because of its ability to critique in a light-hearted manner.
Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit uses humour, and particularly parody, to criticize war, fascism and the Nazi regime. The story is adapted from Christine Leunens’ book, Caging Skies, which takes place in 1945 Nazi Germany as the war is coming to an end. The dramatic irony used in this film is central to the story, as the audience knows the inevitable demise of the Nazi regime, but 10-year-old Nazi youth member Jojo does not. He is guided in his day-to-day life by his imaginary friend, a burlesque version of Adolf Hitler. Jojo’s loyalty to Nazi Germany is tested when he discovers his mother is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa, in their house. As Jojo learns about Elsa, his blind fanaticism is brought into question.
This essay argues that Waititi uses parody as an effective technique to critique Nazi Germany in Jojo Rabbit by stripping the parodied object of its power and rewriting the discourse on the subject, subsequently redistributing the power surrounding the discourse. First, this essay will establish how parody discreetly undermines power figures and power structures, leaving them open for ridicule. Secondly, it will explain how Jojo Rabbit critiques Nazi Germany by creating a comparison between the original act and the exaggerated parody. Finally, it will show how parody’s critique returns agency to underrepresented voices that were oppressed during the Holocaust and Nazi Germany.
2. Parody Discreetly Challenges Power Structures
Parody has long been the tool of choice to challenge power structures. Jodi Sherman would say it is because comedy “evokes a critical and thoughtful reaction from the audience [by challenging] symbolic orders” (Sherman 73). As far back as medieval times, political humour has been used to question the power structure: the jester was the only member of the kingdom with the honour of teasing the king. The jester was able to evade the norms of acceptable behaviour by blending humanity with absurdity (Sherman 73). The jester imitates the king, whilst exaggerating beyond him, leaving his message in the realm of truth, yet somewhere outside of it. Parody lives in this grey area that allows it to ridicule the truth by exposing the absurdity within it, effectively disguising the political criticism.
Waititi’s burlesque re-imagination of Hitler disguises its criticism through humour. Although at first glance Hitler seems completely absurd, there is a reality within how Waititi characterizes him. The truth is that Waititi plays the idealized version of Hitler, imagined by a 10-year-old boy who’s been brainwashed his entire life by the Nazi regime. Instead of viewing Hitler as the supreme leader, Jojo thinks of him as a mentor and a best friend. This causes Hitler to be portrayed as an exuberant character who only wants Jojo to be the “bestest, most loyal little Nazi” (Jojo Rabbit 00:01:54 ). Waititi’s absurd parody of Hitler deconstructs his authority and resists its oppression with laughter (Baym, Jones 4). Parody strips Hitler of his ideological power with humour, disguising its real intention of political criticism.
3. Exposing and Ridiculing Nazi Germany Through Comparison
The exaggerated humour in parody is blatant, making it easy to recognize; however, the political criticism is often harder to discern. Robert Hariman writes on page 255 of Political Parody in Popular Culture that political criticism happens when the parodied object is “held up to be seen, exposed and ridiculed, rather than discussed, amended and enacted”. The entire film, Jojo Rabbit, does this. It doesn’t sugarcoat; it holds the Nazi regime up to the audience and lets them come to their own decisions. The parodied object (Waititi’s Hitler) is being compared to the original subject (Adolf Hitler), giving the audience two Hitlers to compare and contrast. It is this dichotomy, inherent in parody, that encourages criticism. Waititi’s parody displays two versions of Hitler and the Nazi regime just like the jester presented two versions of the king.
Another intriguing dichotomy that Waititi creates is his re-imagined version of Jungvolk, the Hitler youth camp. Jungvolk was Nazi Germany’s method of brainwashing the youth into believing and adopting their oppressive ideologies. Waititi’s choice of a remote location and costumes resembling those of boy-scouts compares what was Nazi Germany’s indoctrination method to a cheap summer camp. Waititi further emphasizes the boy-scout feel of Jungvolk with the montage sequence of all the youth playing childish camp games like capture the flag. To these youth, Jungvolk is their summer camp. It provides them with a chance to make friends, learn new skills, and most importantly, to belong within a group of people. This comparison suggests that the real power of the Nazi regime was the camaraderie within it. Waititi reinforces this point in the scene between Elsa and Jojo. The scene alternates between closeups of both of their faces as Elsa tells Jojo he’s not a real Nazi. She tells him that he simply “’likes’ Swastikas and ‘likes’ dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be a part of a club” (Jojo Rabbit 01:04:34). The youthful exuberance of Jungvolk coupled with Elsa’s revealing words in this scene exposes that behind the intimidating masks of the Nazi regime were innocent children who just wanted to belong.
While any style of filmmaking can depict Hitler’s Jungvolk, only the dichotomy of parody reveals how Hitler’s success depended on a combination of backstage maneuvering and audience gullibility (Hariman 256). The differences and similarities between the original act and the exaggerated parody expose the subtle techniques Hitler used to control people. Waititi uses parody well to dissect these techniques in order to ensure they will not be repeated.
4. Parody Redistributes Power Surrounding Discourse
Political and social criticism is often borne out of people’s displeasure with the power structures that govern them. Apart from the sheer, murderous horrors of the Holocaust, much of the criticism surrounding Hitler comes down to his control over the people he ruled. In a study exploring the effect of parody in combatting oppressive ideologies, Baym and Jones note that parody is used as an effective method to resist social and political ideologies (Baym, Jones 12). Parody accomplishes this by giving a voice to the stories of those who were oppressed under the doctrine, redistributing agency surrounding the discourse (Hariman 260). This is accomplished in Jojo Rabbit by focusing on stories of the Holocaust that are not represented in mainstream Hollywood film.
Jojo Rabbit’s focus on Elsa and Jojo, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and an indoctrinated German youth, levels the power surrounding the Holocaust by characterizing two stories that have been archetyped over the years. Instead of representing Jews as frail and Nazis as evil like many World War 2 movies do, Waititi makes Elsa a strong hero and Jojo a kind, but brainwashed boy. Waititi gives a voice to stories that are underrepresented with his focus on two different characters who are both controlled by Hitler.
Waititi gives Elsa and Jojo freedom and agency in the last scene of the movie. As Jojo and Elsa celebrate the ending of the war in the streets, Waititi alternates between mid shots and closeup shots of the two dancing joyously. This moment of pure enjoyment stands in stark contrast to the previous scene in which Elsa was still trapped, hiding in the walls. The transition between these two scenes shows how Elsa and Jojo are finally free from the controlling grips of the Nazi regime. Recreating the image of these characters does not strip away the power that Hitler had over them, but it gives them back control over their own representation.
Words have power. It was Hitler himself who wrote in Mein Kempf that, “whoever controls the youth has the future” (Hitler 1999). Those words had power over millions of people. It stripped them of culture, identity and agency. Although nothing can fix the toll the words caused, parody can help level the power that the words still hold. Waititi uses parody in Jojo Rabbit to imitate Hitler and the Nazi regime in a burlesque fashion to undermine their authoritative power. With the audience comparing Waititi’s Nazi Germany to the original regime, Waititi is able to create a different perspective surrounding Nazi Germany that envokes critical thought. Ridiculing and re-writing the Nazi regime allows Waititi to level the power surrounding the topic, giving agency to the people who were controlled most. Although it may seem as if parody underscores the seriousness of a subject, when used well it turns an evil dictator into a clown and the hopelessly oppressed into the heroes.
Baym, Geoffrey, and Jeffrey P. Jones. “News Parody in Global Perspective: Politics, Power, and Resistance.” Popular Communication, vol. 10, no. 1-2, 2012, pp. 2–13., doi:10.1080/15405702.2012.638566.
Hariman, Robert. “Political Parody and Public Culture.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 94, no. 3, 2008, pp. 247–272., doi:10.1080/00335630802210369.
Hitler, Adolf, 1889-1945. Mein Kampf. Boston :Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Sherman, Jodi. “Humor, Resistance, and the Abject: Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful and Charlie Chaplin’s the Great Dictator.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, 2002, pp. 72-81.
Waititi, Taika, director. Jojo Rabbit. Fox Searchlight, 2019.