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By Abigail E. Miller, Executive Director
February 10, 2020
Last night controversial film Jojo Rabbit won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay by Taika Waititi. It was a surprising upset in a competitive category, but a very welcomed celebration of one of my favorite films of the year. Of course, I’m no voting member of the Academy, but I am a Holocaust historian and museum educator – which gives me a unique perspective on this surprisingly sweet and satirical look at a young boy’s Nazi indoctrination - and subsequent awakening to humanity.
Based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, writer/director Taika Waititi has created a film that follows Johannes along a coming-of-age path during the last months of World War II. A wanna-be dedicated member of the Hitler Youth, the little boy earns the nickname “Jojo Rabbit” for his inability to display the toughness necessary to kill a rabbit during war training at a Nazi summer camp.
Mocked by his peers, tender Jojo (who can’t even tie his shoes) wants nothing more than to shine as the best little Nazi there ever was. Helping him along is his imaginary friend, none other than the Führer himself. But Jojo’s mother Rosie secretly works as a member of the resistance, hiding a young Jewish woman in a concealed crawl space in the family’s home. Subtly, she pushes Jojo to reconsider the cruel and inhumane Nazi propaganda he has accepted as truth. Once Jojo discovers the girl, Elsa, hiding in his house, their developing relationship rouses him to question the tragic nonsense he believed about Jews and about himself.
It’s a story that’s been told before: one of unlearning violence and remembering the intuitive and felt connections between human beings – regardless of their race, religion, or other identity marker. For many of us those lessons feel as timely as ever. Rising trends in nationalism and concerns about fascism have seeped in to our daily political conversations. Antisemitism and hate crimes are being reported at near-record highs over the past few years.
Is it any wonder then, that such stories – at their heart feel-good and hopeful – are making their way back to the mainstream? Tossed with a hefty dose of subversive humor, quirky styling, and nostalgic music, Jojo Rabbit follows in the footsteps of other anti-Nazi comedies like The Great Dictator, The Producers, and Inglorious Basterds. There are times when society both needs and wants narratives about our struggles to maintain a common humanity, preferably tinged with some element of fantasy or humor to prevent them from becoming too cloying for our cynical sensibilities.
Some have criticized the film for trivializing fascism and for only providing a superficial indication of the seriousness and scope of the Holocaust. As a historian and museum educator, I have no illusions that fictional movies, TV shows, or books can achieve these things. I hope the film will make people laugh and cry and think critically about personal responsibility. Then I hope they’ll turn to places like our Museum, where they can learn the real history behind movies like Jojo Rabbit.