When comedy meets ignorance

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 13 September 2019

The prospect of a new Taika Waititi movie is usually a reason for joyful anticipation. However, watching the trailer of Jojo Rabbit and reading the first reviews left me appalled.

Jojo Rabbit is Waititi’s take on the Third Reich. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this week and will be shown at cinemas from October.

Waititi, the New Zealander of the Year 2017, calls his slapstick movie an “anti-hate satire”. Still, I wonder whether it will do more harm than good.

There have been outstanding satires about Hitler and the Nazis. Charlie Chaplin’s classic The Great Dictator (1940) mocked the monumentalism of the Nazi regime. Mel Brooks used the Nazi theme to critique the US showbusiness in The Producers (1967). Jerry Lewis satirised militarism in Which Way to the Front? (1970).

These classics leave no doubt about the character of the Nazis: They were evil. In Jojo Rabbit, however, they stumble through the plot like “clumsy morons”, as the Guardian’s critic describes it.

Other reviews were equally scathing. Vox said, “it’s more of a comedy with satirical elements than a true satirical tale”, while Vanity Fair crushed it: “It’s Possible to Make a Good Comedy About Hitler—But Jojo Rabbit Isn’t It.”

What concerns me even more is that public knowledge of the Shoah is so poor nowadays that audiences will fail to abstract from Jojo Rabbit’s slapstick humour.

In a recent survey, only 43 percent of New Zealanders said they knew a reasonable amount or a lot about the Holocaust. So what would the rest make of a Holocaust comedy?

To see what happens when historical ignorance meets slapstick, go back to Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, comedies like Sonnenallee (1999) and Good Bye, Lenin (2003) hit the screens. They showed life under East German communist rule in a funny, satirical and even nostalgic way.

A few years later, social scientists from Free University Berlin surveyed young Germans about their knowledge of their country’s communist past. The researchers found that public knowledge was shaped by these movies. Respondents did not regard the failed ‘German Democratic Republic’ as a dictatorship but as a somewhat quirky country.

Waititi would not have wanted to promote such a normalisation of evil. But given our lack of history awareness, it may well be the outcome.