Writer and Director Taika Waititi won the best adapted screenplay Oscar this year for his movie “Jojo Rabbit,” a satirical comedy about a Nazi youth named Jojo Beztler, played by Roman David Griffiths, who finds a Jewish girl named Elsa, played by Thomasin McKenzie, hiding in the walls of his house. The film mocks the absurdities of Nazi ideology and shows how Jojo’s friendship with Elsa, among other things, leads him to reject the antisemitism and fascism that he had taken as gospel for much of his young life.
Satire is defined by a basic Google search as, “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” It often has noble intent, but can suffer from dangerous pitfalls. Writer Malcom Gladwell outlined this in his podcast “Revisionist History” as the Satire Paradox, wherein people who are meant to be ridiculed by the satire, find its exaggerated versions of themselves and their views empowering. This same issue can be found in dramas about controversial issues. The cruelty of a Nazi such as Amon Göth in “Schindler’s List” is seen as horrifying to most, but can also represent the might of an empire to those who are still buying what Hitler was selling. Ultimately, no matter how you do it, it is difficult to portray Nazis without possibly galvanizing those who take comfort in white supremacy and fascism.
Watching “Jojo Rabbit” made me think about two things: one, these implications of satirizing Nazis, and two, Mel Brooks’ 1967 film “The Producers.” And before I move on, it is important to note that both Waititi and Brooks are Jewish. This gives them specific personal and historical precedent to write stories that reclaim and recontextualize a regime that subjugated and exterminated their people.
Brooks is a titan in the world of comedy and has written and directed some of the most notable transgressive comedies and satires ever made: “Blazing Saddles” and “The History of the World, Part I.” One of his best-known works is “The Producers.” The film follows Max Bialystock, played by Zero Mostel, a failing Broadway producer and his anxiety-ridden accountant Leopold Bloom, played by Gene Wilder. While fudging the numbers in Bialystock’s books, Bloom realizes that if one were to raise money for a Broadway show that was guaranteed to flop, no one would audit their books, and the producers could take off with all the cash they raised. With that brilliant scam, the two are off to produce “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden,” a musical that is bound to be shut down by intermission. Much to Bialystock and Bloom’s surprise and dismay, the over -the-top musical numbers featuring tap dancing stormtroopers and a one-earring-ed hippie playing Hitler are a smash hit, not because people like Nazis, but because the musical portrays them as flamboyant buffoons.
I believe that “The Producers” is the most successful and borderline impenetrable satirical take on Nazis and fascism ever. I cannot imagine any way a legitimate fascist could find the silliness and jazz hand-y glee of “Springtime for Hitler” as some sort of empowering or agreeable portrayal of the Third Reich and especially Adolf Hitler himself. A literal Nazi throws a fit in the middle of the performance, complaining that his Fuhrer would never use the word “baby” and act like the actor fooling around as Hitler onstage.
Brooks once said that SFH was meant to mock the “shoddy theatrics of fascism,” but I do not fully agree with that. The theatrics of fascism are not shoddy, they are extremely effective. They are powerful and have caused men to commit terrible deeds in the name of their country. What “The Producers” does is take those elaborate theatrics and recontextualize them. Putting images inspired by Nazi propaganda on a Broadway stage makes them look as stupid as they truly are and robs them of their power. You cannot help but laugh at the absurdity of it all.
“Jojo Rabbit” attempts to do what “The Producers” did in exposing the often-ridiculous facets of fascism and Nazism, and though Waititi does it more subtly than Brooks, I still find it effective and possibly immune to the satire paradox. The Nazis are portrayed as bumbling bureaucrats, sad drunken men and gullible people seduced by the idea of joining a “safe space” for white people. That would not be enough if Waititi did not point it out in the script himself with Elsa scolding Jojo, “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten-year-old kid, who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.” “Jojo Rabbit” also manages to do something that “The Producers” was not necessarily in the position to do: it shows the sadness and tragedy of fascist ideology and hate, not in the context of the Nazis themselves, but in those whom their actions effect. Waititi toes an expert line between the satire and sincerity of the film in a way that I hope made Brooks proud.
If you are interested in this topic, I would recommend not only watching these movies but checking out Linsday Ellis’s YouTube video, “Mel Brooks, The Producers and the Ethics of Satire about N@zis,” which inspired a great deal of this article.