‘Jojo Rabbit,’ ‘A Hidden Life’ and Nazis at the movies in 2019
Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” which arrives in theaters Oct. 18, sets the montage to a German version of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” lampooning Hitler’s rise and diminishing it to the level of Beatlemania’s empty-headed fanboys and girls. Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life,” due for release Dec. 13, plays the historical footage somberly to establish a historical and political context for the earnest true story to follow.
These wildly divergent films about allegiance, conscience and domestic life in Hitler’s Europe will make for an instructive double feature one day, when future generations try to make sense of how the world was reacting to fascism’s reemergence in 2019 in Europe and the Americas. I came close to such a double-bill last month at Aspen Filmfest, where I saw the crowd-pleasing comedy “Jojo Rabbit” and the mournful capital “C” cinema “A Hidden Life” within 48 hours of one another.
In aesthetics and style, Waititi and Malick are in different universes. The similarities would seem to end with those opening visuals. But their aims are the same. Both films are challenging the 2019 viewer to think about the choices they’re making right now, how they are (or are not) standing up for what they believe in, what they’re basing those beliefs on, and what they’re willing to sacrifice for their convictions.
The first act of “Jojo Rabbit” is straight-up Nazi slapstick. We meet Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old Hitler Youth, and his goofy imaginary friend Hitler (Waititi himself) before Jojo sets out from Berlin for a sort of Nazi summer camp, where he is supposed to learn to kill Jews under the buffoonish leadership of Nazi camp counselors played by Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson.
The film keeps the laughs going to the end, but it’s hard to imagine anyone will sincerely argue it doesn’t take its subject seriously. We soon learn Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson) is quietly supporting the resistance. We’re forced to consider the cost of such a choice for parents, forced to consider how to talk to kids about hate, and we can’t help but think about the impressionable Jojo-like young people being radicalized online today with real-world consequences.
Waititi has been calling the film, which won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival, an “anti-hate satire.” Screenings have been preceded by a short filmed statement by Waititi about his intent, which repeats the phrase. Normally, I’d argue that any piece of art that requires explanation before you see it is a failure of expression — the work should speak for itself. But in this case, and maybe because of this moment in history, I actually found it useful.
We’re going to be arguing about “Jojo Rabbit” until Oscar night and I think it’s fair that Waititi say his piece in screenings nationwide before Twitter goes ablaze with offended knee-jerk reactions. Twitter will remain a fiery hell, I’m sure, but Waititi has started an alternative, elevated conversation that I hope viewers continue.
And it’s not a new conversation. There is a long history of laughing at Nazism, of course, from “The Great Dictator” to “The Producers” to “Jojo.” (Ferne Pearlstein made the great documentary “The Last Laugh” about Nazi jokes shortly before the 2016 election.) Satire and triggering humor are a time-honored tool in fighting hate in our time. They’re just not the only tool.
“A Hidden Life,” Malick’s first historical film, is based on the life of the Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl). Working a farm in the Alps and raising a trio of daughters with his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), the devout Catholic Jagerstatter refuses to serve Hitler’s cause. Even when non-combat options are offered, he refuses because he would still have to swear an oath of loyalty to the Nazis. He goes to prison to face the guillotine, leaving Franziska to keep the farm going alone and raise the girls.
A priest tells him early on, “Your sacrifice would benefit no one,” and the sentiment is repeated at every turn — by family members, by Nazi officers, by his lawyer. Nobody is watching. Nobody is following him. History will not change. And yet, he stands firm.
He’s silent for long stretches of the film and doesn’t precisely articulate how his faith is motivating his protest — the film is narrated with the Jagerstatters’ own historical words from prison letters the couple traded — making him a mostly blank canvas onto which the viewer must project their own moral questions. “A Hidden Life” artfully nudges each of us to think about how we are or aren’t standing up for our principles today. It puts us in Jagerstatter’s shoes and asks us to consider not only what we might have done then, but what we’re doing now.
Neither “Jojo Rabbit” nor “A Hidden Life” is a masterpiece. Malick repeats, to diminishing returns, many of his affecting visual and emotional moves from his handful of established masterpieces, “Days of Heaven,” “Badlands” and “The Tree of Life.” Waititi seems to be working toward something greater that will make use of his indeed masterful gifts of comic timing and visual gags displayed in “Jojo,” in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and in “Thor: Ragnarok” — he’s on his way to making something truly transcendent with his bag of tricks.
Nonetheless, both films speak, sadly and urgently, to where we are in 2019 and both films challenge us to do better.
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