Much ink has been spilled on director Taika Waititi’s portrayal of Hitler in his Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit, which just won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Some have praised Waititi’s take on the genocidal ruler, saying that his light and humorous version of the dictator provides useful social commentary on how we approach political tyrants. Others were not impressed, arguing that the director’s message failed to dig into the horrors of the Nazi regime and its leader.
Less attention, however, has been paid to Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf, a murderous Hitler Youth camp director with a strong hatred of Jews. Throughout the film, Klenzendorf takes a liking to Jojo, serving as a surrogate father figure to the young boy’s imaginary Hitler. When he discovers that Jojo is hiding Elsa, a young Jewish woman, in his home, he helps protect both of them from Nazi investigators. His turn away from the dark side reaches its climax when he sacrifices himself to save Jojo from Soviet troops. By the end of the film, he is a hero. He is, for lack of a better term, a nice Nazi.
No doubt there were Nazi officers who showed kindness to their countrymen while the regime held power, all while upholding and partaking in the horrifying status quo. Exploring the “nice Nazi” in film and observing the paradox unfold on screen would make for a fascinating study into both the characters in question and the audience watching.
In an age of growing anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, however, one wonders if Waititi is behind the times here. The hate-filled comments Jews see every day on social media manifested themselves during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us” and waved Nazi flags during the procession. The number of Jewish institutions—from synagogues to cemeteries—that have been vandalized with Nazi imagery continues to grow. The attacks in Pittsburgh, Jersey City and Monsey sent shivers through the American Jewish community, with some questioning their place in contemporary society.
It is against this backdrop that Waititi presented the character of the “nice Nazi.” While I don’t doubt Waititi’s intentions, the character of Captain Klenzendorf ultimately does more harm than good. Thanks to both Waititi’s writing and Rockwell’s excellent performance, they create a sympathetic character that one can’t help but love. His arc is rich and fulfilling and, by the film’s end, Klenzendorf is less hateful indoctrinator and more misunderstood fun uncle. Heck, he was my favorite character throughout the film’s run.
At the same time, movies are more than just pictures on a screen. They create powerful imagery and narratives, sometimes ones that stick with viewers for years. Characters, especially those based in history, take on more than their immediate storylines. They live beyond the screen. When one creates a movie about Nazis, they are not just commenting on Nazism. They are showing you what it means to be a Nazi.
With a character like Klenzendorf, Waititi makes viewers sympathize with a group that deserves no sympathy, creating a false narrative that one could easily see gain traction on the far left or right, despite the filmmaker’s intentions. At best, it turns Nazis into a joke. At worst, it transforms them into misunderstood heroes. The results, however, are the same. By presenting the “nice Nazi” in fiction, Waititi has opened the door to the creation of the nice Nazi in reality.
Jojo Rabbit may not be the spark that will ignite a nuanced discussion of the Nazi party and its officers. But nothing exists in a vacuum. As truth becomes harder to discern and social media amplifies voices of hate, how long before we start listening to pundits and historians argue that not all Nazis should be defined just by their party affiliation? How long before we start hearing that genocide is complicated and that these murderers also did good in the world, raising families and giving charity? How long before we start hearing that these kind-hearted souls were just following orders? How long before we start hearing that there were very fine people on both sides?
Captain Klenzendorf would be less of an issue were Waititi’s satire of the Nazis stronger. However, he fails to effectively skewer them, presenting them as a group of bumbling idiots instead of the systematic and ideological organization they truly were. The film has nothing to say about Nazism’s core, making one wonder why Waititi chose to focus on it in the first place.
That is not to say that Nazi satire is not possible. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator showed that it was okay to laugh at the Third Reich and its leader. Mel Brooks’ The Producers followed suit with its in-movie play, Springtime for Hitler. And, while not satire, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas told a heartbreaking story that allowed us to sympathize with a Nazi commander, while also not forgetting who he was at his core.
However, what separates those movies from Jojo Rabbit is that they were created in a world where Nazim was believed to have been utterly defeated—or at least pushed to the fringes. Today, however, the opposite is true. In our world, Springtime for Hitler could be viewed not as satire, but as propaganda.