Comedy about Hitler leaves critics fuming

Outrageous? Many feel that Jojo Rabbit’s Nazi subject matter is offensive. © Disney

Is it morally wrong to make a comic film about the Nazis? Critics are passionately divided about Jojo Rabbit, the story of a ten-year-old boy and his imaginary friend – a goofy Adolf Hitler.

You live with your mum.

You play with your mates.

You’re just a normal ten-year-old.

But it’s the end of World War Two. You’re also a Nazi. And you love Adolf Hitler so much that a clownish, imaginary version of him is your best friend.

Welcome to the world of Jojo Rabbit.

Our hero is the eponymous Jojo. Injured in an accident with a grenade, he takes some time out from the Hitler Youth only to find that his mum is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa, in the attic.

So begins a story of growth and friendship, as Elsa helps Jojo see beyond the hatred of Nazi ideology – and the evil opinions of his imaginary friend.

The film has been promoted as an “anti-hate satire”, a moving, funny story that shows the harmful effects of propaganda on young minds and the power of friendship to undo that harm.

Nonsense! say some.

“I felt a bit sick,” said one reviewer. It’s “shamelessly offensive”, said another.

“You just shouldn’t make jokes about these things,” raged a German commentator. For them, the horrors caused by Hitler and the Nazis are too great to be trivialised by a silly, comic idea.

This isn’t the first time a comedy has been made about the Nazis, though. There are almost too many to count.

Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is often voted one of the greatest comedies of all time.

Made in 1940, when World War Two had only just begun, one of its central characters is clearly based on Hitler. Chaplin felt that mocking him was the best way to challenge his power.

In Germany – surely the country least likely to laugh about Hitler – the 2015 film, Look Who’s Back, was a massive hit. It imagines Hitler waking up today and being mistaken for a stand-up comedian.

For the film’s director, laughing at Hitler should make us feel “almost ashamed”, so that we remember what happened and stop it from ever happening again.

The Nazis were responsible for such terrible acts that making a comic film about them is always going to be provocative. It will always shock and upset some people. It will always seem, to some, to go too far.

But is it morally wrong?

No laughing matter

On the one hand, how could it be? Laughter is one of our best defences and one of our best tools for resistance. In the present, it helps us challenge the powerful; reflecting on the past, it can help us confront terrible things and make sure they don’t repeat themselves. Finally, it comforts us. Through laughter, we overcome fear. There’s nothing immoral about it – even if the subject is Hitler.

On the other hand, it’s all very well being funny but doesn’t that lack sympathy for historical suffering? What about the millions of Jewish people murdered in the Holocaust? Even Charlie Chaplin said that if he had known more about Nazi crimes at the time, he would never have made The Great Dictator. Laughter just gives us an excuse to stop taking real tragedies seriously. It makes forgetting easy.

You Decide

  1. Does everyone, no matter who they are, have a little bit of good in them?
  2. Is it true to say that if it’s human, then it must have a funny side?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are Elsa, the Jewish girl hiding in Jojo’s mum’s attic from the Nazis. Write a diary entry about how you are feeling.
  2. In pairs, come up with a simple pitch for a new film – just the storyline. Then present the idea to the class. Hold a vote for the best film idea. Ask your teacher declare the winner and the runner-up only.

Some People Say...

“If there is one thing I know it is that power can always be made ridiculous.”

Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), English comic actor and filmmaker

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Jojo Rabbit has caused a lot of controversy! While there have been some extremely scathing reviews, the film has also received a lot of positive attention. It even won the top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival. So far, it has made over $35 million at the box office worldwide.
What do we not know?
What the future has in store for the film. Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is still praised today – 80 years after being made – despite (or because of) making fun of the Nazis. We don’t know if, in the long term, people will think positively or negatively about Jojo Rabbit’s decision to show the Nazis in a comic light.

Word Watch

Eponymous
Having the same name as the title of something. Here, Jojo Rabbit is both the name of the film and the name of the main character.
Grenade
A small bomb thrown by hand or launched mechanically.
Hitler Youth
The youth organisation of the Nazi Party.
Ideology
A set of beliefs.
Propaganda
Advertising used to try and persuade you to hold a particular political view or opinion.
Trivialised
Made to seem unimportant.
Charlie Chaplin
A famous English comic actor in many silent films.
Provocative
Causing a strong reaction.
Holocaust
The name given to the mass murder of European Jews (and other marginalised groups) by Nazis between 1941 and 1945.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.