Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 military sci-fi film Starship Troopers—about an interstellar war between a league of human soldiers from Earth and an extraterrestrial race of arachnid-like invaders—ends on a sour note. After the human army detains the “Brain Bug” (a sort-of insectoid central intelligence that controls the teeming alien armies), the human Colonel Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) presses his hand to his foe’s heaving, slug-like body. Through some manner of telepathy, the Colonel is able to read the Brain Bug’s mind, revealing: “It’s afraid.” While the enemy “Bugs” had previously seemed an utterly unfeeling menace, driven only by an instinct to colonize and destroy far-off planets, the film’s ending reveals a weakness that the humans can exploit. It then concludes with a fake ad, encouraging the viewer to enlist in the space marines and continue the fight.
It’s a deeply uncomfortable coda, which shows Starship Troopers and its cast (among them: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer and Denise Richards) in a new, cold light—not as heroes, but as villains. Not only do these characters inhabit a fascistic society, consumed by its mission of deep-space colonization and granting great privileges to its warrior-class, clad in Gestapo-type officer uniforms; now they are also seen to applaud the distress of a captured enemy that, however inhuman-looking, possesses cognizance and empathy. Verhoeven’s movie yokes you into a dramatically necessary identification with its human protagonists and then, over the course of two-plus hours, punishes you for your sympathies. Starship Troopers says, basically: These guys are the bad guys. And rooting for them makes you, too, a bad guy.
It was a message lost on—or anxiously repudiated by—plenty of critics at the time. Time’s Richard Schickel fretted that filmmakers “don’t give a hoot about the movie’s scariest implications,” referring to its tongue-in-cheek celebration of bug-squashing futuristic space-fascism. Roger Ebert called the film “totalitarian.” And, well, of course it was. The response is understandable: Critics and filmgoers may not like being arraigned by a piece of blockbuster entertainment. But that’s precisely what good satire does: It fosters sympathy with an unsympathetic position, then lambastes the viewer for falling for it. It indicts not only the society it criticizes, but the viewers as individuals.
The risks that Starship Troopers takes came to mind watching the decidedly unrisky new World War II dramedy Jojo Rabbit. Written and directed by Taika Waititi (What We Do In The Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok), Jojo Rabbit stars Roman Griffin Davis as Johannes “Jojo Rabbit” Beltzer, a German 10-year-old who eagerly joins the Hitler Youth in the waning days of World War II. Jojo’s imaginary best friend is the Führer himself, played by Waititi, a Polynesian Jew. Young Jojo’s fanatical devotion to the eternal glory of the Thousand Year Reich is undermined, firstly, by his total incompetence in all things military and, later, by the discovery of a beguiling Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) who is being hidden by his mother (Scarlett Johansson) in an attic annex.
As a self-proclaimed “anti-hate satire” (or, , an “anti-fuckface satire”) the apparent objects of Jojo Rabbit’s scorn are Nazism particularly, and a more generalized culture of zealous hate-mongering that is, in a modern context, productively associated with Nazism and its history. In the first respect, the film offers little beyond broad lampoonery. The Nazis figured onscreen (played by Sam Rockwell, Stephen Merchant, Rebel Wilson, and other familiar-ish faces) are depicted as utterly buffoonish. Likewise, Waititi’s Hitler is a madcap goofball who peppers his zanily cartoonish performance with anachronistic slang. “Heil me, man!” he enthuses early on, nipping a joke from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 Nazi-occupation comedy To Be Or Not Be. And this pretty much sums up Waititi’s humor: He says “man” where one might not expect him to. Jojo’s jokes, such as they are, come across like softballs lobbed straight over the plate. There’s a bit about how tedious it is to offer the customary Nazi greeting to a room full of acquaintances. There’s a gag detailing a Nazi captain’s garish uniform designs. A dopey kid in a Nazi uniform mishandles a bazooka. Etc.
A major problem here is that playing this historical material for laughs feels utterly facile. This is especially true when it comes to the indoctrination of the impressionable youth, which Jojo takes as its ostensible subject. (The opening credits score footage of Nazi rallies to the Beatles’ German-language version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” drawing a nifty connection between Beatlemania and Hitlermania as some manic youth cult, which the film never bothers to develop.) Take the Nazi Education Ministry’s introduction of “social arithmetic,” in schools, which reworked basic math lessons as forms of indoctrination. One such question, no-joke, asked: “The proportion of Nordic-Nordic-Dalian blood in the German people is estimated at four fifths of the population. A third of these can be regarded as blond. According to these estimates, how many blond people must there be in the German population of 66 million?” Played straight, this sort of profoundly terrifying indoctrination may call attention to its own inanity. But Waititi, who is seemingly possessed by the desire to make sure his audience gets it, lest his “let’s laugh at the Nazis” gambit be deemed garish or tasteless, takes pains to double-underline the jokes.
Early on, Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf even acknowledges the pointlessness of incuclating kids like Jojo, given the advancing Allied armies and the Reich’s nigh-inevitable defeat. Another laugh-line: “We Aryans are one thousand times more civilized than any other race. Now get your things together, kids, it’s time to burn some books!” This smug, knowing quality defines Waititi’s approach. Jojo Rabbit’s big revelation is that the Nazi ideology of ethnic superiority was cobbled together on a wobbly ground of rank hypocrisy and, even more broadly, that love is preferable to hate. It is boringly self-congratulatory, obsequiously flattering both the audience and the filmmakers.
Despite its evident failings, the film took home the coveted Peoples’ Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, an honor that serves as something of a bellwether for aspiring Oscar-season contenders (previous winners include American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, 12 Years a Slave and Green Book, all of which went on to win Best Picture). This commendation is hardly surprising given how much Jojo shares with these other certified crowd-pleasers. With its mile-wide lampooning and deliberate avoidance of the breadth of Nazism’s horrors (anti-Semitism may be front-and-centre, but the Holocaust itself is never confronted head-on), Jojo Rabbit never risks actually disturbing its audience. Instead, they are left comforted by the notion that it is bad to hate and that simply recognizing that truism is the basis of a moral life.
This is too bad. Especially because Waititi’s plot depicts the ways that satire can pierce through ideology and change an audience’s outlook. When young Johannes discovers the refugee Elsa in his house, he commits to writing a book about the supposed Jewish menace, in a bid to ingratiate himself to the Nazi brass who deem him a feckless coward. The poker-faced Elsa indulges him, playing directly to the child’s paranoia, feeding him “facts” about the age at which Jewish children sprout their horns, and how they sleep suspended upside-down from the ceiling, like vampire bats. Like a good satirist, Elsa assumes her oppressor’s point-of-view, exposing the utter stupidity of his beliefs by playing right to them. The disconnect between Elsa’s increasingly fiendish descriptions of Jews and her own personality (alternating between tender and tough) rupture’s Jojo’s dizzy faith in the Nazi party, creating a crack of cognitive dissonance that she pries open.
Yet depicting satire does not make a film satire itself. Because Waititi’s Jojo is—as he, and the viewer, are so often reminded—just a boy, his fanaticism can be safely written off as childlike. It’s a problem compounded by the film’s authority figures, whose own commitment to fascistic zealotry is depicted as half-hearted (Rockwell), inanely sinister (Merchant), or entirely nonexistent (Johansson). What’s most interesting in the film is the way in which young Jojo, and the other impressionable Hitler youth, fall under Nazism’s sway despite its apparent idiocy and empty pieties. So many of the film’s characters seem to know that their ideology is corrupt, and yet they behave as if they believe otherwise. They regard their self-delusion as preferable to its rupture. This is a fascinating subject, relevant to contemporary political ideology. Yet Waititi leaves it for the most part unexplored.
Instead of making the viewer uncomfortable, Jojo Rabbit gives contemporary audiences more of what they want: a warmed-over, feel-good humanism, and generalized sentiments about love trumping hate. In order to land, satire must take risks. Satire draws blood, not weepy tears—and certainly not rounds of flattering applause.