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Jojo Rabbit encapsulates the banality of evil – that's why it should conquer American audiences

In Taika Waititi's film, just like in today's America, people who think terrible things don’t always look like the deeply flawed adults you expect them to be

Clémence Michallon
New York
Monday 06 January 2020 23:43 GMT
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Taika Waititi as Adolf Hitler and Roman Griffin Davis as the titular protagonist in Jojo Rabbit.
Taika Waititi as Adolf Hitler and Roman Griffin Davis as the titular protagonist in Jojo Rabbit.

Back in October 2019, when I first saw the trailer for Jojo Rabbit at a Joker screening in New York City, I wasn’t sure what to think. On the big screen, Roman Griffin Davis’s Jojo joined the Hitler Youth and spewed hatred with disturbing confidence, egged on by his imaginary friend, director Taika Waititi’s goofy version of Hitler. Meanwhile, a Jewish girl named Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie) hid from the Third Reich in Jojo’s house, protected by the boy’s mother (Scarlett Johansson). Rebel Wilson, Sam Rockwell and the young Archie Yates also featured in this mish-mash, which was somehow tied together by David Bowie’s “Heroes”.

Puzzled, I leant towards my husband and whispered: “I don’t know that the world is ready for a campy Hitler movie.” I held on to this opinion for a few days, until one night, we bought tickets to Jojo Rabbit, thinking we might be about to witness a disaster of epic proportions. But from the very first of its 108 minutes, the movie grabbed my attention and never let go, taking me through an emotional journey that my cold, New-York-hardened heart rarely gets to experience anymore.

For several weeks, Jojo Rabbit was the best film I had seen in 2019. (Then, Little Women happened.) So I was more than a little surprised when grim reviews started cropping up.

The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin awarded it one meagre star and deemed it a “feeble, one-note Nazi comedy”. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw was none more positive, calling Jojo Rabbit “intensely unfunny”. The Independent’s own Clarisse Loughrey made me feel less alone by giving the film five stars, praising it for making “buffoons out of the fascists while lamenting how easily their beliefs can corrupt a nation”.

But still – it’s always unsettling when someone ends up despising something you adore. Eventually, though, I understood why I had been hardwired to love Jojo Rabbit from the moment I walked into the cinema. See, Jojo Rabbit is, at its core, a tale about the banality of evil – a visceral concern in today’s America, where I have lived for five years.

Throughout the film, Jojo invokes anti-Semitic myths as if they’re true, because he’s been told they are. The adults around him don’t do much better (with very rare exceptions), and their lack of discernment in the face of a totalitarian regime is on par with Jojo’s.

I moved to the US in July 2014 and received my green card (the document that made me a permanent resident) two weeks before Donald Trump’s election in November 2016. New York City was eerily quiet the next day, as if stunned by the realisation that these things can and do happen.

Since then, we’ve had to learn to handle the cognitive dissonance of going about our daily life as things we thought we’d never witness in our lifetimes keep unfolding (think deadly white supremacist rallies, the US-Mexico border crisis, etc). This particular type of anguish was summarised in a viral tweet by Brooklyn-based writer Sarah Lazarus in August, which read: “Every day we have to wake up, confront the most upsetting s*** we’ve ever seen, and then walk around obeying laws and saying ‘it’s tomato season.’”

Terrible times don’t always feel like terrible times – sometimes they just feel like tomato season. And people who think terrible things don’t always look like the deeply flawed adults you expect them to be – sometimes, they look like a 10-year-old boy in a Nazi uniform.

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This is in a way more terrifying than if monsters always matched our idea of evil, and if turmoil upended our lives to the extent that we had no choice but to stop our daily activities and confront it head-on. Waititi demonstrates that brilliantly through Jojo’s tale – and infuses it with just enough hope to soothe your soul.

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