Monday, November 11, 2019

Werden Wir Helden

Jojo Rabbit is my favorite movie to come out in a long time. It's funny and poignant and comforting and inspiring.

Writer and director Tiaka Waititi has earned a lot of good will with the most awesome Thor: Ragnarok and the utterly charming Hunt for the Wilderpeople. He takes a big swing with Jojo Rabbit—a satire about a little aspiring Nazi whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler—and he pulls it off 100%.  Improbably, Waititi has made a laugh-out-loud movie about the dehumanization of Jewish people by Nazis. Not what you were expecting? There's more.

Because it's not a joke. It's serious. This movie shows us how despicable it is to mistreat people we think are different from us. The ridiculousness of imaginary Hitler and the Nazi propaganda is an argument against his worldview.

But it's also more than that. Jojo Rabbit provides a remedy for this harmful worldview. 10-year-old Jojo rejects the prejudices of the Nazi party after getting to know an actual Jewish person. Being with people and getting to know them is one way to get over preconceived notions we have about people we have classified as "other." It's a cure.

Even though this movie is hilarious and heartwarming, it's also violent and devastating. It doesn't subvert the atrocities of WWII in order to pull off the humor. It's tough to take at times, but it bucks us up by not pulling punches. It's not escapism. It paints a stark picture of fascist leadership and white nationalism. Sorry I always bring it up, but you can't watch this movie and not think about the upsurge in nationalist rhetoric and anti-immigration sentiment that has been ushered in with the election of Donald Trump. The parallels are gutting.

In the midst of the horror show that was Nazi Germany during WWII, Jojo Rabbit delivers a message: Endure.

When Jojo sees the bodies of dissidents hanging from scaffolding in town he asks his mother, "What did they do?"

"What they could," she replies.

The final scene ends with a quote excerpted from Rilke's "Go to the Limits of Your Longing" and it's like medicine for dealing with hard things:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final. 

As you may know, I hate that people voted for Trump and I hate that leaders continue to enable him. Everything seems worse to me because the candidate who most overtly mistreats people different from him (women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ community, immigrants, non-white people) became our president. I'm different since the election. I'm sadder. I'm disappointed and I have lost some of my faith in people. I know this seems like hyperbole but it's how I feel. I vacillate between wanting to withdraw hopelessly and wanting to hang in there and try to make things better. Jojo Rabbit gets it and says, "Do what you can. Just keep going."

I don't know who needs to hear this but

It's me. I needed to hear this.

Jojo Rabbit ends with David Bowie's German version of Heroes, Helden, playing. David Bowie actually performed the German version at the Berlin Wall three years before it came down. I never knew about the German version until I was making a David Bowie playlist when he died in 2016. Helden is pretty arresting when you hear it. It's one of those songs I feel like I've always known so you immediately recognize it and know what's coming but then instead of "We could be heroes" you hear it in German and Germans are, you know, not the heroes but the villains of WWII.

But that's just one of those ill-conceived notions I have about a group of people who are different from me. America could do a lot worse than look to Germany for an example of moving forward after the atrocities of WWII. In fact, while working on the Lynching Memorial and Civil Rights Museum Bryan Stevenson was inspired by the way Germans have memorialized WWII. He says,
I went to Berlin. You can't really go 100 meters without seeing markers and stones that have been placed next to the homes of Jewish families that were abducted. Germans seemed to want you to go to the Holocaust Memorial. They were intent on changing the narrative. They didn't want to be thought of as Nazis and fascists forever. And I just don't think we've created cultural spaces in this country that motivate people to say "never again" to this history of enslavement and lynching and segregation. And the absence of that commitment I think has left us vulnerable. And not only do we not do that, we actually romanticize this era and we tell stories about how glorious and wonderful the architects and defenders of slavery are. 
The way Germans have memorialized WWII can teach us something about how to move forward—with humility and by being truthful about what happened.

I know that it's just a movie. When the president is a nightmare, when Congress won't listen, when your representatives in Washington don't actually represent you, when there's nothing you can do and everyone with any power seems ineffectual, what good is a movie? Alongside serious problems, arts and entertainment seem like luxuries—pretty low on the list. But it's not a luxury because luxuries are extra. When all is lost, art is the impetus for hope. It's a vital component of resistance. That's why they always start by burning books.

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