Jojo – “What did they do?”
Rosie – “What they could.”
Handling fascism in film can be a bit of a thin line to walk. It is something that has left an undeniable scar upon the human race and a way of thinking that is still quite prevalent today. It can be sensitive to figure out the best way to tell it; sometimes sobering drama can seem best. Meanwhile comedy can be trickier; you don’t want to trivialize such a thing but sometimes you need to knock the wind from the sails of figures of fear just to show them for what they are. I want to use 1942’s Lubitsch comedy “To Be or Not to Be” and the more recent “Jojo Rabbit” (2019). Both films have reputations for being well praised by *most* film fans but also getting questioned for their choices of making light of such a violent regime like the Nazis. But I believe what these films achieve hits the sweet spot perfectly, and are, in my opinion, just as effective as any somber retelling of the time.
People have every right to be apprehensive of such takes on fascism. The Nazi occupation as highlighted in both these films was a brutal dark mark on history, so many people were abused and killed under the hand of a cruel dictator. This is an indisputable fact but the mistake is thinking the motivation behind these pictures is to trivialize this. The point is not to paint these figures in a comedic way or to make them more palatable, it is to take these figures and shrink them down, to crack the facade and show these monsters for what they were. Both directors of these respective films have expressed this –
“What I have satirized here in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology. — It can be argued that the tragedy of Poland realistically portrayed in To Be or Not to Be can be merged with satire. I believe it can be and so do the audience which I observed during a screening of To Be or Not to Be –“
– Ernst Lubitsch in a response letter to an angered critic
“The snobbery of filmmaking is this ludicrous idea that comedy isn’t art or that comedy can’t change the world or that comedy can’t change people – that you basically have to depress an audience in order for it to be meaningful,”
– Taika Waititi via USAToday in response to certain critic opposition to Jojo Rabbit
I belive the comedy here is not just superficial as some may assume. Comedy has the power to take the narrative back. Not to rewrite history but to show the power of perseverance. To show that these figures didn’t break us, that there is and always will be people to push back. For when the dust settles we can’t regain what we lost but we can push through and know that they didn’t win and will never win. History, in trying to make sure we never forget what a regime such as the Nazis did in a way makes them untouchable. Like a boogeyman we all know of and is not just regulated to our childhood fears of shadows from under the bed. In the foreboding tone of history books we can take for granted how ridiculous their ideology was and in turn how ridiculous these people were beyond shows of brute power.
“To Be or Not to Be” drops us into Warsaw, Poland just a breath away from the 1939 occupation from Nazi Germany. Lubitsch centers the story around a popular theater group as they are doing a run of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. During their off time though they set to work on rehearsing a satirical play concerning the Nazis not knowing what is soon to be at their doorstep. At the heart of the group is the married acting duo of Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and his wife Maria (Carole Lombard). All is well until an eager young pilot Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack) divulges his romantic attraction to Maria, enacting a domino effect of a mild flirtation carried on behind Josef’s back when he is on stage delivering his “To be or not to be-” speech. One night during this pattern news tears through the country and through the theater that the Nazi’s have crossed over into Poland. Everything comes to a screeching halt as people scatter and the sound of attack reverberates from the streets.
Lubitsch, in his usual way, sprinkles the film with an upbeat pace that oozes charm. He chooses to poke fun of the Nazis through the complications of a mild flirtation that set off a domino effect that could have dire consequences. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard are perfectly matched in dry wit but so much praise needs to go to the supporting cast as well who are marvelous and know what type of film they are in. What we get is a ragtag group of actors called upon to perform a pseudo heist of infiltrating the third reich. We hardly ever see Hitler himself but spend a lot of time with the men of the Gestapo who are presented as a bumbling group who behind doors are nothing more than idiots. Poking fun of how having their egos stroked is almost more valuable to them than their ideologies, as if they were just average men before who were given a costume that made them finally feel important. The cleverness of “To Be or Not to Be” is the fact that the actors must utilize their art to a heightened degree. What was once a regular rehearsal of a satire becomes crucial but they know to use it to their advantage and in turn show how stupid these Nazis are.
“Jojo Rabbit” takes a different direction and expresses this time of history through the eyes of a little boy. Not just any little boy but that of a hitler youth in the waning days of World War II in Nazi Germany. Young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is an awkward kid but has determination to live up to the regime he believes is the path he must take. This is heightened to an even greater degree seeing that his imaginary friend is none other than Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) himself. It is not hard to soon see that this life is not as eager to accept Jojo as much as he wants it to. He pauses where others do not hesitate for a moment, when others speak with brute authority he stutters and trips over the words as if he subconsciously knows they feel wrong on his tongue. The conflicting influences in his life include his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) who is an undercover anti-Nazi, the local regime lead by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and a band of buffoons who are barely keeping things afloat.
Making the situation more precarious is the fact that Jojo finds out that his mother has been hiding a young Jewish girl in their home. Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) knows her situation is delicate but she is no victim and makes that clear to Jojo who feels the knee-jerk reaction from his indoctrination to retaliate against her. But a stalemate is reached between them since he knows telling of her whereabouts will mean to the safety of him and his mother if anyone found out. Waititi jabs this period of time in a sharp and well thought way but there is extreme pathos and even jarring moments of heartbreak. A perfect balance is found in cutting the Nazis down to size while also allowing breathing room to be reminded of the true gravity of the situation.
Both films do a fantastic job of portraying Hitler in the right way. They both satirize him, that is a given. But it should again be stated that neither, in their humorous tone, forget that he was a deplorable person. I feel they remind us of the coward who at the end of the day ended his life in a bunker when he realized his way would never be, and not that of an iron fisted omnipresent figure of history. In “To Be or Not to Be” we hardly ever see Hitler himself but we get a great portrayal of him done in character by one of the actors as they are on their mission. We first see the actor Bronski (Tom Dugan) portray the furor in rehearsal. The scene calls for him to enter into a room of associates who naturally all do the customary “Heil Hitler”, to add a tongue in cheek flourish he follows with “Heil myself.” which Dobash (Charles Halton) the producer hates. When he asks why he ad-libbed, Bronksi says “But it’ll get a laugh…”. A similar take on dressing down the “Heil Hitler” greeting of the third reich is seen in “Jojo Rabbit” as well. In that film we have Taika Waititi trying his hand at the role who is also not that of the man himself but the idea of him filtered through the mind of a boy. His Hitler is arrogant and cartoonish, coming off as a spoiled child who can be angry, jealous and incessant of his own way. In his exchanges with Jojo we see how bewildering it is that such a man could ever gain any serious power when he seems like a crackpot who is just missing a tinfoil hat.
I have talked a lot about the humor and how constructive it is when used deftly as in these two examples but I also want to quickly touch on the moments that are more subdued and powerful. In “To Be or Not to Be” we have one of the supporting characters named Greenberg (Felix Bressart) who silently resents the fact that he always gets stuck with rather small and forgettable parts. He is also Jewish and at the height of the mission when he must temporally serve as bait to distract the Nazi’s delivers a heartfelt speech of his beloved Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. The humorous tone returns by the end of the speech but the layers cannot be denied. Knowing that he is of the Jewish faith and realizing what these words coming from him must mean, in another way, beyond that of just prose is powerful.
Humor/Comedy when done right can be a beautiful form of coping with tragedy and when you look into it you can find the research to back it up. It is a way for us to survive. Laughing is communal and helps us see things through a different sense. When we satirize the Nazis we are not dismissing the tragedy they left in their wake or not taking them seriously. When we satirize them we find a way to take power away from them and show them for what they were. That they were a group who lived off fear and preached ideologies but when they realized they would ultimately fail showed their true colors. This films are a testament to the human spirit and the inability to see that is a real shame.