When Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s self-described ‘anti-hate satire’, made its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the pre-release hype was indescribably high. All over the festival-focused areas of the city, posters for the film could be found. It seemed to be on the must-watch list of every critic I encountered there and it wasn’t hard to see why. What a marvelous risk for Waititi, a former indie favorite turned Marvel darling taking a step back into a more auteur-focused approach, with a subject matter so controversial that would be released under the squeaky-clean banner of Disney. Add to that the special award the festival was granting Waititi before the film screened and it was clear that Jojo Rabbit was being set up for Oscar success. The surprisingly mixed reviews that followed its premiere put the brakes on that dream, but only for a few days as the movie won the coveted Audience Award, a prize that now seemingly guarantees a Best Picture nomination as the bare minimum. It’s still early days in the race but with a strong narrative building, a steady box office growing, and a mega studio in its corner, it wouldn’t be a mistake to call Jojo Rabbit the Oscar frontrunner. That’s pissed off a lot of people.
In a season chock full of exhausting discourse — hi, Joker, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you! — it was hardly a shock that Jojo Rabbit attracted its fair share of controversy. After all, it is a comedy set in Nazi Germany featuring a member of the Hitler Youth whose imaginary best friend is Der Fuhrer himself, as played by the Jewish Maori director. Nazis are depressingly back in style right now and many wondered if a film like this could nail the precarious balancing act required to pull off the seemingly oppositional feat of making a comedy about Nazis. Sure, it’s been done before, but historical and cultural context matters. That seems to be a driving point behind a lot of criticisms Jojo Rabbit has faced, with some calling it distasteful, tone-deaf, and utterly misguided in how it minimalizes one of the most heinous atrocities ever committed by humanity. It’s led some critics to compare it to a rather dark spot from our recent pop culture past: Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.
Veteran of Italian cinema, long-time Jim Jarmusch collaborator, and talk-show favorite Roberto Benigni is a bombastic public personality who has proudly worn the persona of a public clown for the majority of his career. Along with his regular screenwriter Vincenzo Cerami, he decided to make a comedy-drama inspired by the story of Rubino Romeo Salmoni and his book In the End, I Beat Hitler. The story was also heavily inspired by the life of Benigni’s own father, who spent two years in a Nazi labor camp and told his children silly stories to distract them from the horror of what he experienced. Benigni is not Jewish and was advised by many friends against making the film. Still, he went ahead, consulting with the Center for Documentation of Contemporary Judaism throughout production. The end result, Life is Beautiful, became a minor phenomenon.
Benigni plays Guido Orefice, a young Jewish man whose idyllic life in Italy of the late 1930s is brought to an abrupt halt when World War II breaks out and he and his son Giosué are taken to a concentration camp. To try and hide the true horror of the Nazi regime’s extermination of the Jewish people from his son, Guido tells Giosué that they are part of an elaborate game. If he behaves himself, doesn’t complain about his hunger or missing his mother, he’ll earn points and eventually gain enough to win a tank. He keeps up this facade until the Allied Forces arrive to liberate them, but before they can escape together, Guido is executed by a German soldier. He keeps up the game until the very end.
To this day, Life is Beautiful is still one of the highest-grossing Italian movies in its home country. It won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival the year Martin Scorsese was the jury president. In the awards season where Saving Private Ryan battled it out with Shakespeare in Love, the movie garnered seven Oscar nominations and won three, including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor for Benigni. It was even one of Pope John Paul II’s favorite films.
I f*cking hate Life is Beautiful, and whatever you think of Jojo Rabbit and its faults, it feels incredibly obtuse to compare the two films. Granted, drawing direct parallels between them is a tricky task: One depicts life in a concentration camp from the point-of-view of a Jewish man while the other focuses on a young German boy in the Hitler Youth who is shielded from the real force of war. One has a more deliberately goofy tone, the other a grander, sentimental affair. 1999 is very different from 2019 in terms of what audiences will expect and tolerate from comedy as a whole. Still, since the comparison is being made so frequently right now, it feels worth dissecting how that happened and why it doesn’t really work.
As noted by Kobi Niv in the book Life is Beautiful, But Not for Jews: Another View of the Film by Benigni, ‘Any attempt to duplicate or reconstruct a Nazi concentration camp in a film is inherently problematic’ as it is ‘all but impossible’ to fully recreate the actual conditions and experience of those who lived through it. The same argument is frequently applied to the entire concept of the war movie, but especially those depicting the evils of Nazism and those who suffered under its rule. Film is intended to do many things but entertainment is generally considered its primary objective, so turning history into a bite-sized narrative through the tools of cinema cannot help but somewhat glamorize things. You can’t show the gut-wrenching horror of war on film without making it look kind of cool. Benigni’s concentration camps are playgrounds, the true devastation within softened to turn a story of unimaginable agony into something heart-warming without ever confronting history itself.
Indeed, Benigni didn’t want to deal with history. In a 1999 interview with The Guardian, he admitted that he deliberately included factual inaccuracies to distance his film from history, saying, ‘Only documentaries of survivors and the majesty of the truth can tell us what is this tragedy. Otherwise, you are imitating, which is not respectful. I respect this tragedy so I stayed far away from it.’ He respected it but clearly not enough to avoid making a comedy about the Holocaust. Benigni wanted the instinctive emotional punch that comes with that period in time and the human cost within but none of the baggage that came with, hence how oddly unwilling Life is Beautiful is to show the truth of what happened in concentration camps. As Niv notes, ‘aside from the father’s off-camera execution at the end of the film and this one brief, nightmarish hallucination, no Jew is killed in Benigni’s camp for the entire length of the film. Moreover, for the entire film, no Jew is even beaten.’
In Waititi’s film, the eponymous Jojo is a child. We see the world through his eyes, as through the mind of a pre-pubescent boy who was raised from birth under the powers of brainwashing propaganda. The Hitler he imagines as his best friend is a buffoon, a big child befitting of a 10-year-old’s dreams, but he’s also the creation of said propaganda. Raise a kid to believe a dictatorial madman is an almighty figure of benevolent glory capable of near-mythic qualities and you shouldn’t be surprised by how his brain processes that. Fake Hitler isn’t the only way Jojo Rabbit conveys this. The color palette of the film is much brighter in its beginning scenes, like a storybook village that represents a boy’s blind belief in the system he’s been told cannot and will not fail. As doubt begins to chip at his brain, that vibrancy fades away and he sees the world for what it is. He is never shielded from its horrors but rather he is one of many pawns in a system that has tried to uphold a worldwide lie.
The intended comedic target of Jojo Rabbit is less the war itself or the Nazi Party but the flimsy theatricality of their overblown propaganda. It’s an insidious force that is simultaneously pathetically easy to deconstruct yet wholly enthralling to those who are brought up surrounded by it. The jokes arise from the guilelessness of Jojo’s perspective, coupled with our knowledge of how such propaganda works. This is also shown in contrast to the ways the adults around Jojo either oppose or try to bolster his warped point-of-view. His kindly mother is quietly anti-Nazi but cannot overcome his brainwashing, while the Nazi Party officers left behind to essentially play babysitter are utterly demoralized and disempowered. These are the idiots who have nothing to do but wait out the end of the war with the knowledge that they’re screwed. They know what will happen to the Nazis once the Americans arrive.
Giosué’s ending in Life is Beautiful is positioned as a moment of melancholy victory, the ultimate father’s sacrifice to save a child’s innocence. It suggests a version of the Holocaust without the trauma that blackened millions of people’s lives, making this boy the ‘lucky one’. In reality, that kid would still have to deal with the distress of his experience, only now it would be coupled with the emotional and mental strain of realizing exactly what his father did. At worst, Giosué would end up a Holocaust denier, spewing claims of concentration camps being a big fun game where nobody died because how could he have lived there for so long and not seen it?
A lot of people love to argue that one can make anything funny, that it is comedy’s job to tackle the taboo subjects at any cost. There’s some power to that concept. Mocking the bullies and the world leaders is a critical part of democracy and when it’s done well it can change history. Mocking Nazis has its place and I think Jojo Rabbit is sturdy enough in terms of its target and style to get that. Life is Beautiful, however, diminishes both the Nazis and the evils the committed against millions of Jews. A Gentile writer-director-actor tried to make the Holocaust the scene of a sentimental journey. None other than Mel Brooks, the godfather behind the great comedy featuring Nazis, The Producers, called out Benigni for this in an interview with Der Spiegel:
Roberto Benigni’s comedy Life Is Beautiful really annoyed me. A crazy film that even attempted to find comedy in a concentration camp. It showed the barracks in which Jews were kept like cattle, and it made jokes about it. The philosophy of the film is: people can get over anything. No, they can’t. They can’t get over a concentration camp […] I always asked myself: Tell me, Roberto, are you nuts? You didn’t lose any relatives in the Holocaust, you’re not even Jewish. You really don’t understand what it’s all about. The Americans were incredibly thrilled to discover from him that it wasn’t all that bad in the concentration camps after all. And that’s why they immediately pressed an Oscar into his hand.’
These conversations will continue for many months if Jojo Rabbit manages to hold onto its status as the Oscar candidate to beat, and people far more qualified than this Gentile Scot film critic will take on its many layers. Some parts of history just cannot be done justice on film, but those who choose to tackle it should always be aware of what they want to achieve with their end result. If only Roberto Benigni had listened to those friends who warned him about making Life is Beautiful.
Header Image Source: Fox Searchlight