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“So, Your Son is a Nazi”: Modern Hollywood’s Weird Fixation on Feel-Good Stories About Fascists…

JoJo Rabbit is supposed to be an “anti-hate satire”, but what exactly is it satirising?

To be fair to director Taika Waititi, JoJo Rabbit is a well-made and charming crowd-pleaser. It manages something genuinely impressive, offering a feel-good coming of age comedy set against the backdrop of Germany in the dying days of the Second World War. It belongs the awkward, saccharine genre that produced films like Jakob the Liar or Life is Beautiful or The Day the Clown Cried. It is impossible to overstate how thin a razor blade Waititi is dancing, and how remarkable it is that he maintains his balance. The film never feels too sombre or too dark, but never as tasteless as something like The Book Thief.

Of course, Waititi largely manages this through cinematic sleight of hand. He avoids dwelling too heavily or for too long on the victims of fascist oppression in Nazi Germany. JoJo Beltzer finds a young Jewish girl hiding in his attic, but the film never details the horrors of the Final Solution. The characters are repeatedly confronted with the sight of bodies hanging in the public square, but the camera never really lingers on them. Instead, it focuses on JoJo’s reaction to them. The audience’s gaze is fixated on his gaze. The question isn’t how the audience feels about the horror, but how they feel about how JoJo feels.

This raises an interesting and slightly unsettling question about the recent wave of Hollywood films exploring the emergence of the modern extreme right and the resurgence of fascist ideology. Who exactly are these films for? What is the intended audience of JoJo Rabbit, and what exactly is it saying to them?

Films obviously reflect the world in which they were made, often articulating anxieties and uncertainties bubbling through the popular unconsciousness. There is a noted correlation between economic recessions and great horror films, to pick one obvious example. Indeed, the economic recession of the seventies sparked a number of hugely successful haunted house films like The Amityville Horror, which Stephen King identified as tapping into anxieties about the challenge of running or maintaining or paying for family homes in a difficult economic climate.

The pop culture of the past decade has similarly given expression to long-simmering tensions. In the middle of the decade, there was a genuinely revolutionary fervour in pop culture, finding expression in films like the rebooted Planet of the Apes series, The Dark Knight RisesMad Max: Fury Road, Ex Machina or The Girl With All the Gifts and on television in shows like Mr. Robot. There was a sense that the established order was on the cusp of being overturned. Of course, many of those stories of revolution hoped that the deeply flawed established order would be replaced by something better.

Since the middle of the decade, pop culture has been particularly concerned with the ascent of fascism. This is obvious in a number of ways. The image of Trump’s border wall haunts the popular consciousness, whether literally or figuratively. Although developed before Trump made his infamous promise, War for the Planet of the Apes hinged on the building of a gigantic wall by an insane lunatic. The Wall was an essential part of the iconography of Game of Thrones, coming down dramatically at the cliffhanger ending to the show’s penultimate season.

Films like Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi seemed to reflect the emergence of a new breed of fascism, one driven by young men cosplaying at Nazism. The Force Awakens gave General Hux his own Triumph of the Will speech, in case the audience didn’t get the parallels. The Last Jedi allowed Supreme Leader Snoke to fixate upon concepts of bloodlines and purity, while giving General Hux an alt-right haircut, and setting them against a “scavenger” from a desert world with no important family lineage.

There are obvious causes for anxiety. The current President of the United States has been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. He has minimal respect for the rule of law. He has spoken fondly of dictators. He wants military parades in his honour. He is using the position to enrich himself. He is stoking up racial anxieties. He has threatened to use his power to suppress the free press. He may lead the country into war. He attempted to use the country’s foreign policy in order to aid his re-election. He received help (whether knowingly or not) from Russia in his election. He has transformed the Republican Party into a cult of personality.

However, what is interesting about the shifting approach of mass media pop culture to this is the way in which the focus has shifted downstream. After all, the Trump Presidency does not emerge from out of nowhere. The past decade has seen a lot of radicalisation of young white men, particularly through the internet. Social media like YouTube and Twitter have been algorithmically pushing young men towards extremist content and beliefs. This is an increasing anxiety for parents; it is notable how many major news organisations have written about parents trying to deal with the radicalisation of their young sons.

This approach makes a great deal of sense. After all, the key to these sorts of stories about cultural shifts is often rooted in a human interest angle. It’s an approach to journalism that led to many of those spectacularly ill-judged profiles of modern American Nazis after the election of Donald Trump, trying to find an approach to the story anchored in something relatable or accessible. It also makes sense that this anxiety and this approach to the anxiety would gradually slip out of profiles and news articles and into mass culture.

Modern pop culture is engaged and anxious about the rise of modern fascism, particularly as it appeals to young white men. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out features the character of Jacob Thrombey, the grandson of millionaire mystery writer Harlan Thrombey. Jacob’s father describes him as “politically active”, but his uncle-in-law doesn’t mince words. “He’s a Nazi,” states Richard Drysdale, who is explicitly a Trump supporter. Knives Out never dwells too heavily on Jacob’s beliefs, instead focusing on him as a malicious and pathetic creature, who sits alone in the bathroom at parties and yells alt-right talking points.

Knives Out has little sympathy for Jacob Thrombey or the rest of his family. Indeed, private investigator Benoit Blanc is quite explicit in his condemnation of the entire Thrombey dynasty. Only Harlan himself is portrayed as a decent human being, albeit one who is frustrated that his family has grown into something monstrous and grotesque. Knives Out is utterly unconcerned with the potential redemption of the younger Thrombeys, much like Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is decidedly unconcerned with the redemption of Kylo Ren. It invests more of its attention in Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s second-generation immigrant nurse.

This approach is markedly different to how other recent films approach the theme of radicalisation of young white men. In this context, it is worth mentioning Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, JJ Abrams’ follow-up to Johnson’s work on The Last Jedi. In The Last Jedi, Johnson portrayed the villainous Kylo Ren as a beyond redemption. Ben Solo was the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa, two heroes of the original Star Wars saga, who had freed the galaxy from tyranny. However, their marriage was troubled and they shipped their son off to the care of his uncle. Ben’s resentment simmered, eventually exploding.

The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi present Ben Solo as a monster. Taking the identity Kylo Ren, he murders his father in The Force Awakens and attempts to murder his mother and uncle in The Last Jedi. Kylo Ren is the very embodiment of young masculine anxieties, a toxic cocktail of entitlement and rage. In both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren agressively rejects any attempts at rehabilitation. When Han Solo tries to reach his son in The Force Awakens, Kylo impales him on a light sabre. When Rey tries to save his soul in The Last Jedi, Kylo instead makes a grasp for power. Ben Solo is lost.

This makes the approach to Kylo Ren in The Rise of Skywalker so fascinating, because it marks a complete reversal of the central thesis of both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The film consciously builds to the redemption of Ben Solo, with the character dying in Rey’s arms after helping her defeat the resurrected Emperor Palpatine. The Rise of Skywalker seems to argue that, underneath it all, Ben Solo was a decent person all along. It’s a very sharp left-turn from the brutality depicted in both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

To be fair, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi also hinges on the unlikely redemption of Anakin Skywalker. However, the entire point of The Last Jedi was to argue that Kylo Ren existed beyond such redemption. More than that, The Rise of Skywalker works hard to erase the villainy of Kylo Ren. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi both made a point to stress that Kylo had murdered the other students at Luke’s school, making him the equivalent of a school shooter. This detail is quietly rewritten in some of the supplementary material around The Rise of Skywalker to make Kylo’s redemption more palatable.

Indeed, The Rise of Skywalker consciously works to push Kylo Ren away from the extremes of the Empire’s pseudo-Nazi ideology. The film reintroduces the character of Emperor Palpatine in order to provide a villain, and immediately establishes in conversation with Rey that Kylo Ren is not a true believer in Palpatine’s cause. Similarly, The Rise of Skywalker abruptly kills off General Hux in order to erase the rest of the trilogy’s alt-right subtext. It’s notable that Kylo Ren has no dialogue in the last hour of The Rise of Skywalker, and exists largely separate from the Emperor’s resurrection of “the Final Order.”

In short, The Rise of Skywalker serves to make Kylo Ren’s redemption explicitly apolitical by completely separating him from the obvious Nazi analogues in the film and by further separating those analogues from any commentary on modern political extremism. However, the most revealing aspect of The Rise of Skywalker is that his redemption is brought about by his parents. Leia uses the last of her energy to reach out him, and Han appears as an apparition to redeem him. Luke seemed to completely reject Kylo’s redemption in The Last Jedi, but Leia dies to accomplish it in The Rise of Skywalker.

After all, The Rise of Skywalker is not a story about children. It is a story about parents. The entire film hinges on the revelation that Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, offering unnecessary confirmation of the villain’s virility. The character of Lando Calrissian is reintroduced, even leapfrogging Poe Dameron at the climax of the film to rescue the troops from the Star Destroyer. Like Han and Leia, supplemental material suggests that Lando is himself looking for his own lost child, who has also been lost to fascism. (Of course, had it made it to screen, Lando’s daughter would be an actual victim.)

This gets to the heart of the narrative, and also serves to illuminate what exactly is going on in JoJo Rabbit. After all, the story of JoJo Beltzer is not radically different from that of Ben Solo. Once again, a young boy is seduced by the lure of fascism and turned into something of a monster. When JoJo discovers the Jewish girl living in his mother’s crawl space, his immediate plan is to study her so that he can produce a handbook that might more efficiently help the Nazis identify Jews. His head has been filled with racism and paranoia, his innocence warped into something grotesque.

As with Ben Solo in The Rise of Skywalker, JoJo Rabbit invites the audience to look on the character through the eyes of a parent. The audience is invested in the hope that JoJo might be redeemed, that he might escape the clutches of a toxic and corrosive belief system. The Jewish Elsa tells him, “You’re not a Nazi – you’re a 10-year-old boy who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.” Indeed, the audience’s perspective is that of Rosie, Jojo’s mother, who is played by Scarlett Johansson. Rosie spends the entire movie clearly anxious about her son, hoping that he can be saved.

Rosie is the closest thing that JoJo Rabbit has to a moral centre, given that Elsa exists primarily to interact with JoJo. Rosie is actively working with the resistance against the Nazi regime. She forces JoJo to look at the bodies hanging in the public square, confronting him with the horrors of Nazism. She ultimately dies for the cause, JoJo finding her body left hanging for all to see. “She was a good person,” muses Captain Klenzendorf of Rosie Beltzer. He pauses, then clarifies in the way that character in a movie about Nazis needs to clarify such a remark, “An actual good person.”

However, as much as Rosie might be the film’s conscience, she is as invested in the idea of JoJo’s redemption as the audience. “I know he’s in there somewhere,” Rosie tells Elsa at one point. “In the end that’s all you have. Hope that your only remaining child is not a ghost.” Rosie also begs the Elsa not to force her to choose between her cause and her son. Indeed, Rosie’s faith in her son is ultimately vindicated. JoJo does eventually help Elsa, and does reject the lure of fascism by triumphantly shouting “f%!k off, Hitler!”

The Rise of Skywalker and JoJo Rabbit are both very clear in their intended audience. These are not films for general audiences anxious about the threat that fascism poses in the modern world. After all, both The Rise of Skywalker and JoJo Rabbit refuse to confront the consequences of their male leads’ ideology head-on. These are also not films intended for the people at risk of radicalisation, which serves to distinguish them from similar films like American History X. Neither The Rise of Skywalker nor JoJo Rabbit seriously confront the lure of fascist ideology to their young male leads, nor the hard work of redemption.

Instead, The Rise of Skywalker and JoJo Rabbit are both very much aimed at the parents of young men who are subject to such radicalisation, mothers and fathers anxiously watching their sons coopting fascist ideology and embracing extremism. It is telling that the redemption of both Kylo Ren in The Rise of Skywalker and JoJo Beltzer in JoJo Rabbit does not arise as the result of any internal work by the nominal leads, but is catalised by the death of their mothers. Leia Organa and Rosie Beltzer both die so that their sons might be redeemed.

In fact, both The Rise of Skywalker and JoJo Rabbit seem to position their leads as victims rather than perpetrators. Ben Solo and JoJo Beltzer are confused young men who are exploited by sinister forces. JoJo Rabbit argues that its title character is too young to fully understand the horrors into which he has bought. The Rise of Skywalker suggests that Ben Solo was simply confused and vulnerable to Emperor Palpatine, who had been “every voice you have ever heard inside your head.” The argument is that these young boys cannot be held accountable for their moral choices. They are victims.

There is, of course, something slightly distasteful in all of this. While there is undoubtedly truth in the assertion that these young men are the victims of manipulation and brainwashing, this does not completely exculpate them. More than that, it does not give them a monopoly on the audience’s compassion. There’s a credible argument that sympathy might be better directed elsewhere. After all, there are currently children locked in cages on the United States border and violent hate crimes continue to rise. There are people in very real and immediate danger as a direct result of the beliefs these young men espouse.

Films like The Rise of Skywalker and JoJo Rabbit largely ignore the consequences of such radicalisation on the people who are actually affected by fascism, glossing over a lot of the harm and hurt that such movements cause. It’s notable that the abduction of Lando’s daughter was cut from The Rise of Skywalker, a film built around the redemption of a young white man. These films assume that the audience’s sympathy for those tempted by fascism (or the parents of those tempted by fascism) rather than the victims of fascism. Even in JoJo Rabbit, the film’s primary interest in Elsa is her belief that JoJo is not beyond saving.

This offers a rather grim snapshot of the popular consciousness’ attempts to grapple with the resurgence of extreme right-wing ideology. The Rise of Skywalker and JoJo Rabbit are not radical condemnations of fascism or bold calls to action. They are decidedly less confrontational or assertive than movies like The Last Jedi or War for the Planet of the Apes. Instead, they seem resigned to the inevitability of such extremism, acknowledging that these generations of young men are already lost.

The Rise of Skywalker and JoJo Rabbit cannot imagine a world where the rise of fascism might be thwarted, only that those young men might magically be redeemed coming out the other side of it – for the good of their parents, if nothing else. It’s a very cynical and grim perspective, one rooted in a very narrow viewpoint. There is no sympathy or compassion for those who suffer under the heel of such fascism, those directly affected by the beliefs that these young men hold and the actions they endorse. Of course, this lack of empathy makes sense from the perspective of the movies.

In the world of The Rise of Skywalker and JoJo Rabbit, the real victims of fascism are the parents of these lost young men. In its own way, this is much a fantasy as any saga of space wizards and laser swords.

3 Responses

  1. Keeps reminding me of that moment in “A Time To Kill” (at least the book, I can’t remember if it made it into the movie) when the mothers of the two dead rapists are put on the stand to elicit a maximum amount of sympathy for how their precious angels were brutally slaughtered (by their victim’s father). Then it’s the defense attorney’s turn to question her. Both times (and despite howls of outrage and a severe admonishment from the judge), the guy casually gets up, inquires about the woman’s son’s age, then asks “in his [whatever] years, how many other children did he rape?”

    • Yep, that kinda gets at it. It’s a weird disconnect, where the worst pain imaginable is that your young relative might become an extremist rather than actually looking at the victims of such extremism.

  2. Oof. I have to admit I suspected you wouldn’t like this movie but since it was by far my favourite of the past year I had to go back and check out this review.

    I know we are never going to see eye to eye on politics – I realised that you enthused about ‘Ex Machina’ back in the day – but I do find the idea that ‘JoJo Rabbit’ is somehow “cynical” absolutely baffling. I can understand not agreeing with the politics… but ‘cynical’, ‘grim’ and lacking ’empathy’, really?

    Perhaps empathetic towards the ‘wrong’ people – I don’t agree with that view but for the sake of argument – but it is clearly making a sincere plea towards some direction.

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