The critic Richard Brody suggested recently that cinema needs to be de-Nazified, to abandon its habit of using Hitler’s followers as ‘instant avatars of evil’. ‘Some of the very worst movies of recent years,’ he wrote, ‘have used depictions of Nazis … as a short cut to gravitas.’ And not just those of recent years, we might add, and not just to gravitas. There have been too many films offering easy, belated moral victories, assuming answers to questions that haven’t properly been asked. Still, it is worth looking at the offenders to see what they tell us about the situation. Two good recent cases are Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit and Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, both criticised by Brody. By a curious coincidence they were the last two films produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures before they became a Walt Disney subsidiary.
Jojo Rabbit is an interesting instance because it is full of great jokes and real possibilities, but ends up as a thin, unlovely sermon. And A Hidden Life is interesting in spite of being full of platitudes and possessing all the faults Brody attributes to it, because it gives us a weirdly subtle sketch of a question that perhaps has no answer. The fact that the historical person on whose life it is based was recognised as a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 doesn’t solve the riddle, only deepens it. I would also argue that it’s not really a movie about Nazis. It’s about conscience.
Jojo Rabbit opens in fine style at a Nazi youth camp, where the boys are being taught to hate and kill, and the girls are told they will have to get pregnant for the Fatherland. (There is an amazing book-burning in which the youngsters take part with furious enthusiasm, as if in revenge on schooling.) At the camp, our hero, the ten-year-old Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis), is confronted by his first challenge: he is asked to kill a rabbit. He can’t, because he is scared. This is how he earns the nickname Jojo Rabbit. Fortunately, he has a jolly imaginary friend called Adolf Hitler, a role performed with great zest and many nods to Chaplin by Taika Waititi, the film’s director. It’s a wonderful idea to give Johannes this second self, the Hitler within, but we don’t get much out of it except our pleasure at Waititi’s antics, and when Johannes finally decides he no longer has space in his mind for the Führer, it isn’t because he has understood something about Nazism but because Hitler is a loser. Hitler at this point is both dead and defeated, and his apparition shows the clotted wound of a gunshot to the head, so Johannes is not wrong. But this defunct figure of fancy, still ranting about supremacy and the power of the will, is a good deal livelier than most of the characters in the film.
One of the things Jojo Rabbit does very well is parody the many English-language films with Germans in them. The characters all speak fluent, idiomatic English with a perfectly fake German accent. Scarlett Johanssen, as Johannes’s mother, has an especially good time doing this. And the exception that proves the rule occurs of course when they say ‘Heil Hitler’. In this film they utter it in very casual, matey tones, as if it just meant ‘Hey guys’. The situation is rather different in A Hidden Life, where our hero responds to the official greeting by saying ‘Pfui Hitler’. Dictionaries tell us that pfui means ‘phooey’, but its effect in German is more like that of ‘for shame’, or ‘shame on you’. It is related, I take it, to the English ‘fie’.
Antisemitism in Jojo Rabbit is a strangely theoretical thing. When Johannes, still an eager young Nazi, begins a fraught friendship with the Jewish girl his mother is hiding, he asks her to draw for him the place where Jews live. She draws a picture of his head, and writes the word Dummkopf underneath. She is right. As Sartre said long ago, the Jews of the antisemitic imagination live there and nowhere else. But there are other Jews.
The most ardent Nazi in the film, brilliantly played by Rebel Wilson, presents her justification for racial hatred. She says her uncle was hypnotised by a Jew, and ‘became a massive drunk and a gambler, and he cheated on his wife, and he had an inappropriate relationship with my sister. And then he drowned, in an unrelated accident, but it was the Jew’s fault.’ This is fine as a version of a paranoid mythology, but it doesn’t explain anything about why supposedly sane people would fall for such a story, or have any need of it, and the film doesn’t seem interested in the question.
A Hidden Life launches itself with a series of grand visual and verbal clichés about an Austrian family that wants, in 1939, to remain literally above it all, among lovely mountains and clouds and long green slopes borrowed from The Sound of Music. We know the odds aren’t good because these colourful scenes are preceded by bits of footage showing Hitler driving around cities and addressing huge crowds, and sure enough the father of the family is called up for military training. This isn’t so bad, and he comes home to his wife, their three daughters, her sister and his mother. Our man, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), has decided, though, that he can’t approve of the war, or Hitler, and makes this known in the village. He is not without sympathisers, but most of his neighbours, including the eager Nazi mayor, can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to join in. Nothing much happens for a while. Franz looks sad against various scenic backdrops; some villagers are nasty to his family. Then Franz is called up for real and, having contemplated flight and suicide, decides it is his duty to go. He does, but at his first parade refuses to take the required oath of loyalty to Hitler. He could serve his time in a hospital rather than on a killing front, but this would still mean having to take the oath, and so he won’t. He is put in prison, at first in Austria and then in Berlin.
He is a conscientious objector, then, but apparently not a pacifist. For this gesture of integrity, or whatever it is, he is repeatedly beaten, interrogated, lectured to, and reminded, by priests and lawyers alike, that he is betraying his family and that what he is doing will not make any difference to anything. Then, finally, after five months in prison without trial (it is now 1943), Franz comes before a judge, played by Bruno Ganz, star of great movies by Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. The judge suspends the proceedings to have a quiet talk with Franz, and provides the film’s one truly memorable scene. He tries, as others have, to get Franz to see reason, and Franz says he cannot betray his conscience. He is a Catholic, but he sounds like Luther saying ‘Ich kann nicht anders,’ ‘I cannot do otherwise.’ It seemed to me quite clear that the judge secretly agrees with Franz, and their intricate argument makes the next move all the more impressive. Back in the courtroom, the judge immediately orders Franz’s execution. All the preparations for a beheading are shown in great detail, though we are spared the actual scene. The machine used for the deed and the freshly washed floor are enough.
The ultimate heroic action of the film, however, belongs to Franz’s wife, Fani (wonderfully played by Valerie Pachner). Franz’s position is admirable if it is not crazy (or because it is crazy), but like many admirable positions it involves vanity, stubbornness and some willed simplicity. Fani’s position is quite different, and very complex. On two occasions it seems as if she ought to be asking her husband to compromise with the army for her sake and for the sake of their children. That would make moral and psychological sense, and would echo, but with better reason, what all those who wish Franz well have been saying to him. But she doesn’t do this either time. Whatever Fani herself wants to happen, she wants even more to be with Franz rather than against him, to be loyal to his idea of loyalty. She is the person the Church should have recognised as a martyr.