Is political satire possible today? I don’t mean late-night talk show japes and “Saturday Night Live” burlesques but the real, subversive deal: ridicule with a reformist’s zeal.
These thoughts came to mind while attending the world premiere of Taika Waititi’s overscaled, underachieving “Jojo Rabbit” at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s about a fatherless 10-year-old boy (Roman Griffin Davis) in 1945 Germany whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, played by Waititi as a goofball oaf. In the course of the film the boy bonds with the Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) that his mother, played by Scarlett Johansson, has hidden in the attic, and learns that Jews don’t have horns.
The movie is being gingerly marketed as “an anti-hate satire,” but that’s misleading. It’s more romp than satire, and its politics boil down to love-is-the-answer platitudes. I sympathize with the marketeers’ worries, though. A movie with this kind of content is bound to roil.
That the movie is not nearly as daring as it wants to be is nothing new for Hollywood, which for the most part has avoided political satire as a genre – too risky, too uncommercial. There is an added impediment now: How can satirical political comedies compete with the unceasing barrage of global headlines that seemingly assert absurdity is the new reality?
What we don’t really have right now is what is needed most – political satire that cuts to the bone in order to right wrongs. Comedy that makes us laugh in order to make us think. And perhaps we don’t see more of this because the cause of reformist satire these days is particularly fraught. How can satire ignite change when our politicians can’t come together on much of anything?
I like Plato’s advice when he was asked by a friend what book to read to understand Athenian society. The philosopher referred him to the plays of Aristophanes. One of the great boons of powerful political satire has always been its ability to dissect society’s transgressions in a way that the more staid pronouncements – the position papers and Op-Ed columns – can’t approach. We can learn more about a culture from its comics than its pundits. This is true not only in democratic societies but in totalitarian regimes, where, no surprise, political satire is essentially banned. But the censuring often just drives the satire underground. Some of the sharpest cinematic political satires came out of Soviet-era Eastern Europe, such as Milos Forman’s 1967 “The Fireman’s Ball,” a thinly disguised take-down of party leadership that, naturally, was banned in the former Czechoslovakia following the Russian invasion. Unsurprisingly, the British writer-director Armando Iannucci’s savagely funny “The Death of Stalin,” easily the best of the recent satires, was banned in Russia for its “extremism.”
The current state of political satire, especially on late-night TV, functions less as a righting of wrongs than as an escape hatch – a way of keeping sane. This is a lesser achievement but not to be denigrated. You take what you can get. Most of the sharpest political satires in the movies have been in this vein. Who would want to see a scabrous “Duck Soup”? The Marx Brothers romp is, improbably, one of the greatest antiwar movies ever made. The finest of all political movie satires, 1964’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” was a triumphant piece of nihilism, a great big cackle in the face of despair. And, like “Jojo Rabbit,” it was gingerly marketed – in a Cold War era of fallout shelters and red alerts – as “the hot-line suspense comedy.”
Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” played with what everybody was thinking in 1940: Chaplin and Hitler bore a striking resemblance. Chaplin played a dual role in that film (made when America was not yet at war with Germany). He was the Little Tramp-like Jewish barber, and he was also Adenoid Hynkel, who in the film’s most famous and unsettling sequence, does a deft ballet with an inflated globe, all set to Wagner’s prelude to “Lohengrin.” Chaplin wrote in his 1964 autobiography that he could not have made the film if he knew then the horror of the concentration camps.
Which brings us back to “Jojo Rabbit.” You might think from my high praise of the above mentioned films, or, for that matter, of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” that I would have no problem with the goofy burlesque underscoring the implicit and explicit horrors in this film. But its ostensible high ambitions outweigh its slim achievement. As I also felt about “Life Is Beautiful,” the comedic stuff isn’t on a much higher level than “Hogan’s Heroes,” while the “serious” stuff is heartfelt but mawkishly conventional.
Brooks could get away with “The Producers” because the movie was his mocking way of saying, in effect, “we Jews survived, you didn’t.” But “Jojo Rabbit” comes out at a time when global anti-Semitism is on the rise, and so I think more is needed, something that deepens our understanding of hate and redemption. Waititi, referencing Germany in 1933, said after the Toronto premiere that “the ignorance, and the arrogance to forget, is a big human flaw. That’s why it’s important to tell these stories.” But it’s also important to tell these stories with the complexity they demand. Waititi wanted to light a bonfire but, at best, what we get is a sputtering candle.