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Can We Camp-Up Hitler?

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

JoJo Rabbit, dir. Taika Waititi, 2019

The first thing to say is that it's stupidly outrageous that a 10 year old kid can give such a brilliant performance as the lead in a movie. Yes, it's been done and it's been observed that child actors lack the self-consciousness which is the curse of many an older thesp, sure, but still, Roman Griffin Davis is flawless here in every frame. More than that, the film dies whenever he's not on screen, which says a great deal about his magnetic charisma. Fortunately, though, he's in pretty much the entire thing.

Next is the ethical issue. Can a comedy - an outright spoof - about Hitler, fascism and the Holocaust possibly be 'right'? Can it possibly steer its message towards telling us all in absolutely unequivocal terms that nothing ever approaching the rank evil of such a monumental human dysfunction can ever take place again? Here we have Hitler played in essence as a clown, a buffoon, a jester. He is camp, effete, pathetic. Yes the film is shot through the eyes of a subject of Hitler's systemic indoctrination and perhaps small kids in Nazi Germany really did see Hitler as a benign father figure triumphant hero while believing that Jews had devil-tails and vampire teeth. But the problem is possibly that while the film may adopt this perspective, we, the viewer, cannot: we can only see the adjacent horror which sits aside it, the mass psychosis which soiled all humanity in its wake. The war took place less than a century ago still, and while the proliferation of art forms like cinema may radicalise the way history is constantly revisited, the problem is that the events themselves resist such revision for the very potency they bear witness to - the concrete warning of where man has so grievously erred. If we camp-up Hitler this year, repackage him, re-imagine him, in ten years time do we then begin to romanticise him and his vision? For the same reason, do we allow picnics, circus acts and Frisbee throwing sessions to throng about the Berlin Holocaust Memorial or the 9/11 Memorial in New York? After all, there's a little something called 'solemnity' and 'respect'.

On the other hand, there is the argument which says that sometimes the best human response to something as inhuman as Nazism is to reduce the very dogma which embodies it to pure ridicule, to frame it in an absurdist light, to laugh in its very face, which is, arguably, the one thing we can do when all else has failed. In this vein, there are of course notable predecessors to Jojo Rabbit in the form of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Mel Brook's To Be or Not To Be. There is a slightly different intention behind the use of the Hitler portrayal in Brooks' other dark satire, The Producers, but the effect itself encapsulates the intent: make Hitler virtually a pantomime dame and we end up having the last laugh at him. Quentin Tarantino of course also 'revises Hitler' in Inglorious Basterds, but in a way which doesn't quite reduce him to a lampooned idiot; indeed Tarantino's treatment is more derived from wish-fulfillment fantasy land, recasting a universal villain in a way in which we all get to visually feast on a far more satisfactory sense of justice that the cowardice of suicide deprived us of. Yet, when all is said and done, I also worry that comedy exists at something of a safe remove from reality: yes we employ art to debase monsters but we have to wonder whether, at the time, the true victims would ever find anything remotely amusing to laugh at: even in hindsight, even with the retrospective lens of survival. Can you transform genuine tragedy of that scale into escapist comedy so justly? Reading Primo Levi, one would think not. I am also reminded of a haunting line from Stephen Daldry's film, The Reader, where Lena Olin's character, a survivor of the concentration camps, says, "Don't go to the camps looking for catharsis: nothing comes out of the camps."

That said, the film itself is genuinely funny and utterly charming, which only made me come away from it feeling all the more conflicted. With Griffin Davis' star-struck junior Nazi suffering from a serious case of hero-worship, you really do believe that he is just a boy being exploited by a larger scheme, the true nature of which he is utterly oblivious to: he just wants to be a "good boy" doing what good boys do: being fiercely loyal, obedient and unquestioning. This conviction pales, though, when it comes to other characters, notably his renegade mother (Scarlett Johansson) and the Jewish girl she is hiding (Thomasin McKenzie), neither of whom seem really more than stock figures loosely tethered to the denouement the film finally aims for. Another problem is that however comically ingenius Waititi is as a writer, the film lacks the significant transferal to emotional heft and necessary reflection which a subject of this significance needs if it is to justify its existence. The 1997 Roberto Benigni masterpiece Life is Beautiful is clearly a narrative blueprint for Waititi, and he even attempts to mimic its earth-shattering off-screen climax at one point, and it works for a split-second or two, but what comes before and what follows simply doesn't allow the moment to carry over into any lasting or paramount transience. Yes, Hitler is metaphorically finally booted out the window, accompanied by Griffin Davies yelling "fuck off Hitler," but by then it's all a little too late because the murder of six million Jews has still gone on before and, well, that's just no laughing matter.


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