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Film

Nazis, Nostalgia, and Critique in Taika Waititi's 'Jojo Rabbit'

Arriving amidst the exhaustion of the past (21st century cultural stagnation), Waititi locates a new potential object for the nostalgic gaze with Jojo Rabbit: unpleasant and traumatic events themselves.

Contemporary culture finds itself caught between two antagonistic poles: a fascination with nostalgia and an obsession with the new. Art, music, and literature are at once inundated with repurposed objects from the 20th century—the endless filmic remakes and call-backs to the styles of a previous era—while simultaneously forced to keep up with the blistering pace of consumerism. Whereas culture clings to stable and repurposed images of the past, a late capitalist economy churns out ephemeral products that go out of vogue in a seeming instant. There is a timeless fascination with the 1950s on the one hand, and the planned obsolescence of the iPhone on the other.

This tension, as of late, has only grown greater. To keep up with consumers' demands for the original and the innovative, nostalgia continues to mine history for, ironically, "new" objects appropriate for a nostalgic gaze. Yet one can only go back to the same nostalgic ground so many times. As is palpable, for instance, to anyone who has seen the latest Fast and Furious installment—or simply observed its fading financial and pop-cultural returns—nostalgia as the form of exhaustion of the future, a symptom of the decline of the new, can itself be exhausted. If nostalgia fixes onto one object or cultural moment for too long, part of its charm—or, more importantly, profitable potential—will fade. A stagnate nostalgia, one that runs counter to the logic of innovative capital, cannot continue to hold.

Such a breaking point seems to be fast approaching. By most accounts, pop culture's fascination with nostalgia, or what the cultural critic Simon Reynolds calls "retromania", took hold in the 1970s with the rise of postmodernism. It began with the pastiche of Warhol and the Lucas-esque fascination with the past and developed into the "no futurism" of the present (our "make America great, again" era, which harkens back to Reagan's same phrase in the '80s). From '70s and '80s conservative longings for the '50s, to the '90s declarations of the end of history, all the way up to our contemporary period's "addiction" to its own immediate past, nostalgia has persisted as the dominant cultural form for decades.

But 50 years is quite some time to be mining sentimental objects of history. While nostalgia is in one sense reaching an apex—self-referential marvel installations, brand-name Universal, Disney, and Warner Bros revivals, and perpetual cultural callbacks abound (not to mentionTrump, a "nostalgiatrician", if you will)—such a peak is also necessarily the beginning of a decline. The archives of films to remake, styles to repurpose, and sounds to remix are not limitless. Sequels, while still cash cows, offer diminishing returns. The more nostalgia succeeds, squeezing every ounce of profitability from history, the more it may be said to fail, undermining its own base. The limit of nostalgia, to borrow the Marxist formulation, may be nostalgia itself.

Robot by Thor_Deichmann (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Nostalgia 2.0: Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit

So what happens when we run out of the past? More precisely, where might we turn when the archive of unique historical styles is itself exhausted, or at least no longer as ideologically or financially productive? Taika Waititi's 2019 film-comedy, Jojo Rabbit, distinct from Christine Leunens' novel Caging Skies (2004) upon which it is loosely based, offers a telling answer: it mines for content in alternative, yet ever-more contradictory, nostalgic objects. Set in 1940s Nazi Germany, the film follows ten-year old Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a passionate Hitler Youth member, as he confronts the fact that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), a covert allied sympathizer, is hiding a teenage Jewish girl in their attic.

Viewers follow JoJo as he enthusiastically participates in Nazi camp (Deutsches Jungvolk), gets injured on his first day, and returns to find a teenage Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his home. Initially antagonistic towards Elsa, JoJo grows increasingly sympathetic to her plight, eventually choosing her and Rosie's anti-Nazism over his previous Nazi allegiances (embodied in the friendly imaginary version of Hitler (Waititi) who follows JoJo around throughout the film, offering companionship and advice). Once the German Army is defeated, JoJo confesses his teenage love for Elsa, and the film concludes with the two dancing in the streets.

While this description may not sound particularly comic or nostalgic, the conceit of JoJo Rabbit lies in the humor with which it plays upon the discordance between the historically traumatic events of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust and the quirky-nostalgic aesthetic most notably popularized by director Wes Anderson. Throughout, the film evokes Anderson's standard sentimental form, itself a pastiche of the '60s—bright colors, zany characters, snippy dialogue, and a general fascination with the innocence of youth—but paired here with an unexpected new content: Nazism.

Although the eccentric, ironic humor of the nostalgic film form persists (when Jojo proclaims that Elsa is "a Jew", she replies "gazuntite!"), in Jojo Rabbit this sweetly comic nostalgic gaze falls upon a distinctly different type of object: that of a traumatic historical past. The film, in other words, upholds a quasi-romantic external appearance—it is difficult while watching Jojo Rabbit not to be reminded of Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (2012), which also follows a youthful first love, albeit in a very different kind of camp—but here bumbling Nazis are at the core of the jokes. Where in Moonrise the lost innocence of youth is the focus (the charming awkwardness of childhood-as-such), nostalgia in Jojo Rabbit becomes abstract and formal (existing mainly at the level of aesthetics and romance, with an underlying traumatic substance).

Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019)

This playful discordance between historical catastrophe and a nostalgic gaze is perhaps best encapsulated in Jojo Rabbit's opening scene, featured in the film's trailer. It begins in-step with a classic teen romance, as an insecure Jojo frets about his first day of summer camp. Staring into the mirror of his quaint room (featuring a cheery bright green colored bedspread), Jojo attempts to pump himself up, gathering the necessary courage to meet his peers.

Things appear to follow the standard nostalgic script—viewers sympathize with a cute, anxious young boy off to his first day of camp—until Jojo's imaginary friend Hitler walks by his room and stops to join in on the pep-talk, shouting for more confident "Heil Hitlers!" It quickly becomes apparent that Jojo is not on his way to attend an ordinary summer camp, but rather the dystopian Deutsches Jungvolk; the charming film form is abruptly contrasted with an abhorrent content.

The effect is twofold: viewers enjoy the film's nostalgic gaze at youthful innocence (Jojo's naïve bumbling and his later romance with Elsa), as well as the ironic jab at the form itself (one laughs at the incongruity between Nazism and the movie's nostalgic universe: its bright colors and quirky tones, its whimsical characters traipsing around an utterly bleak early 1940s Germany). With this, Waititi at once challenges the traditional nostalgic film—the way in which it looks back on history and youth through rose-tinted glasses—while also inventing a formula to save it.

Arriving amidst the exhaustion of the past (21st century cultural stagnation), Waititi locates a new potential object for the nostalgic gaze: unpleasant and traumatic events themselves. Whereas in its previous forms nostalgia has been restricted to the quaint and picturesque, here it migrates to the dark and the desolate.

Waititi, in short, is simultaneously nostalgia's critic and savior. The disjunction between sentimentality and trauma satirizes nostalgia for the 20th century, pointing the gaze directly at the era's horrible political underside. An irreconcilably bleak historical period disrupts the film's apolitical and sentimental form (its bright, whimsical universe gazed upon with child-like wonder). Yet in taking traditional nostalgic aesthetics and applying them to a non-nostalgic historical moment (WWII), Jojo Rabbit also offers fertile ground for the nostalgic mode to continue. Revealing new content for an old form, Waititi satisfies consumer capital's craving for the new so that nostalgia may live to see another day.

Sam Rockwell, Taika Waititi, and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Two Paths for Nostalgia: Critical and Moral

This split, between a nostalgia critical of its own form and one that ultimately re-invents it, is visible within the film's structure itself, which is divided into a more disruptive first act and a reconciliatory second. Beginning with the former, it's notable that Waititi chose to locate his film not simply in a distinct nostalgic time, but more fundamentally in a distinct nostalgic space. That is to say, both the time-period with which Jojo Rabbit is associated (WWII and its aftermath) and the time-of-life upon which it is focused (adolescence) can be found in other, more standard nostalgic films, such as Zemeckis' Back to the Future (1985) Hallström's The Cider House Rules (1999), Burton's Big Fish (2003), Jennings' Son of Rambow (2007) and Curtis' Pirate Radio (2009), to name a few. Rather than merely harvest a new time-of-life or a drastically different era upon which to turn his gaze, Waititi instead focuses on the dark underside of these already nostalgized times; he turns the camera, so to speak, onto a new space within the old times, laying the nostalgic gaze upon the unseemly side of youth in the mid-20th century, corrupted by Nazism and the violence of wartime.

It is from this disjunction that much of the film's humor is derived—we laugh not at the horrors of Nazism, but at the idea that such horrors could ever be nostalgized, at the antagonism between extreme violence and extreme sentimentality—yet this contradiction provides more than mere comedic effect. In its first act, at least, Jojo Rabbit contains a bitter pill. It suggests: if it's not possible to be nostalgic about the Holocaust, then why is it possible to be nostalgic about the postwar fantasies that followed? One cannot, in other words, separate brief utopian fantasies from their dystopian preconditions and antagonisms. The unease viewers feel about nostalgia for Nazi Germany—the incompatibility between sentimentality and trauma—is an unease they should have for nostalgic fantasies of the mid-20th century and "innocent childhood", as such.

Read in this light, appropriating Anderson-style aesthetics and applying them to a non-quirky (to say the least) historical moment, Jojo Rabbit has the potential to disrupt the smooth functioning of its sentimental form. Youth and the past, Waititi suggests, are not an apolitical paradise of sincerity, but are themselves imbricated in socio-political events. Nostalgia, as an aesthetic experience outside of history, is a fantasy projected from the perspective of the present. Extending sentimentality to brutal historical content (Nazi Germany and the looming threat of Elsa being thrown into a concentration camp), Waititi makes visible how youth—and moments filtered through the nostalgic gaze more generally—are not prelapsarian but ridden with strife, conflict, and contradiction.

Yet JoJo Rabbit's second act quickly undoes any rupturing potential of the first. Jojo saves Elsa from encroaching Nazis by the narrative's close (non-ironically fulfilling the coming-of-age-story), Jojo renounces Hitler (achieving maturity), and the Americans win (the bad guys are vanquished). Instead of demonstrating a dark underside of nostalgia, then, Waititi ultimately fully embraces it, attempting to actually direct a quirky youthful rom-com in WWII Germany, matching form to content. Any critical nostalgic potential, in short, is uncritically undone. Possible critique is exchanged for a full-on embrace, as Jojo Rabbit becomes the irreverent film about Germans and Jews during WWII that it could have earlier been a mockery of.

This logic of de-politicization reaches a startling highpoint when conflict itself, for the film, becomes nostalgized. Attempting sincerity, Waititi offers a positive diagnosis of the Holocaust: bad things are simply caused by evil, unsightly people. By the film's close, it becomes clear that all the Nazis in JoJo Rabbit are portrayed as personally bankrupt (they are ugly, enjoy suffering, and behave rudely), while all the non-Nazis and Jews are morally saintly (they smell nice, cherish animals, and have excellent table manners). The characters that find redemption are those who have shown a previous spark of moral rectitude (Jojo's refusal to kill a rabbit ostracizes him from the Nazi youth), while those who are irredeemable are unambiguously so (Nazis that mercilessly kill animals and mock Jojo).

Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019)

What such a nostalgic gaze papers over, of course, is the discomforting fact that nice and "civil" people (in the sense that they may have good manners) can be Nazis—Hitler, after all, was a strong advocate of animal rights. Put alternately: Nazism, as viewed through Waititi's nostalgic gaze, becomes a moral or aesthetic problem about a bunch of bad, misbehaving actors rather than a political one (concerning, for instance, its material and ideological causes). The film's second half both re-instantiates the nostalgic form and extends its logic to the historical content itself, suggesting that Nazis become Nazis because of some evil X inside them (reflected in their poor aesthetics).

Yet in taking such a de-political sentimental view as opposed to a critical perspective—one that sees Nazism as a reaction to real circumstances and immiserated social conditions—the film reproduces the very logic that the first half may be said to problematize. Once moralizing nostalgia (or, the conversion of antagonistic events into aesthetic issues of personal behavior) overcomes critical nostalgia, the result is not only a re-birth of the nostalgic form (its expansion into traumatic events) but the de-politicization of these events as such.

What is to be done?

The takeaway from this critical/moralizing dichotomy is in one sense obvious. If the choice is between a de-politicalized nostalgia amenable to 21st century capital (able to un-problematically extend nostalgia to even traumatic events), and one that challenges nostalgia's very existence (making visible its latent underside), the task is simple: reject the former and embrace the latter; extend the first half of Jojo Rabbit for the film's entirety. Yet while that conclusion is significant, and offers a relevant normative position, there is also a no less important descriptive insight.

What is essential is not simply to see Jojo Rabbit as a normatively good or problematic film, but to be attuned to its transitional status. The film, in other words, stands at the point of intersection between the ends of postmodern nostalgia and the birth of something new. It contains within it both the possibilities for the countenance of commodified nostalgia (the subsumption of historical nightmares to the fantasy form), but also reveals a newfound contradiction (the nightmare of the nostalgic fantasy form itself). Regardless of where the film comes down—it ultimately sides with the former—the aim is to think the contradictions which the attempt at nostalgia 2.0, even if it is a contradictory one, makes visible.

Jojo Rabbit, then, ultimately sits at the interregnum of two paths. It is a film uniquely situated between the backward-looking aesthetics of nostalgia and consumer capital's insatiable desire for the new. Beyond using the film to declare a verdict (critical over moral nostalgia), it offers a glimpse at two types of synthesis that lay ahead: to re-up for nostalgia once again, with all the undesirable consequences that extending its reach may entail, or to re-think its basic mode of functioning entirely.

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