There was a bold movie released last year; a film that, by all counts, shouldn’t have worked. A dreamt-up, silly Hitler as seen through the eyes of a German child? It’s a cultural minefield where one false step could mean complete professional destruction (although it’s unlikely for the director in question). Director Taika Waititi honors our lingering uneasiness with Jojo Rabbit, an adaptation that’s as big-hearted as its plucky protagonist. Alarmingly, though, it has an opposite. Consider a beautiful picture painting the trials and triumphs of progressive thought, and then imagine an inversion of its hopeful message. Enter Apt Pupil, a Bryan Singer-directed drama based on Stephen King’s identically titled novella.
Jojo Rabbit‘s most heinous depictions of intolerance feel almost criminally tongue-in-cheek, often presenting themselves as terrifyingly facetious. “Start telling me about your kind,” Jojo says to Elsa, the young Jewish girl living in his attic. His guest, quick to respond, replies, “Obviously, we are demons who love money. Right?” Jojo, unflinching: “Obviously.”
Behind Jojo’s response lurks a terrifying truth: the intolerant see truth as a pliable, workable construct that is to be believed, not questioned or challenged. This fallacy stretches across racism, misogyny, etc. It’s even more terrifying now than it was then.
King’s story is the anvil to Jojo’s cartoonish tone, a counterweight to Waititi’s more forgiving approach. It follows young Todd Bowden as he actively seeks out a Nazi war criminal in hiding in his hometown, even going to the trouble of getting identifying fingerprints. Rather than turn the man in, Bowden asks him to impart his ideologies and experiences, and to educate him. Predictably, their friendship erodes and becomes a dangerous game of betrayal.
Apt Pupil differs in that it remarks on the horror of the event rather than focusing on actual commentary. We haven’t seen this story before; King’s brilliantly-spun take on Nazi-centric stories feels conceptually fresh and says something powerful about rippling hatred and the enforcing violence and terror. Despite its predication on “easy” horror, it hardly feels quotidian. While Singer’s adaptation is wildly different from King’s original story, the insidiousness remains intact.
Jojo Rabbit and Apt Pupil invert each other not only through their warring depictions of personal evolution but also through their bearings on cultural reference points. Bowden looks to a relic of Nazism for guidance and spirals; Jojo stumbles upon his opportunity and grows organically. Both stories are about young boys enamored with the idea of blind nationalism, with one ending hopefully and the other closing on a decidedly bleak note. The film’s “teachers” are also opposites; a Jewish girl helping a young boy open his heart, and a Nazi war criminal teaching a boy to close his. It’s how Apt Pupil and Jojo Rabbit mirror the zeitgeists of their respective eras.
One feels more real and more conducive to our progress than the other. King’s 1982 novella—and its 1998 adaptation—are pieces of historical fiction. They feel like fiction, too. It showcases a different kind of horror, one that, for many, feels like a terrifying look back rather than a prescient examination for going forward. The story depends on past horrors for modern resonance. The era during which it hit theaters was not exempt from evolving prejudice. Antisemitic canards—defamatory misrepresentations or fabrications leveled against Judaism—took many forms then, a notable example being 1991’s incendiary, historically inaccurate The Secret Relationship Between Blacks And Jews. This can be contrasted with more implicit expressions of antisemitism of our day, a monstrous mutation that author Phyllis Chesler called “the new antisemitism.”
That is, at the end of the day, the kind of intolerance tackled in Jojo Rabbit. The 21st century has been marked by both implicit and explicit manifestations of prejudice and Jojo focuses on both–with added emphasis on the former. There are layers to its teachings, layers warranting a deep-dive into ourselves and the business of living in this chaotic time.
Jojo Rabbit proves this by reflecting our reality in a sobering—yet strangely hopeful—way. Rather than simply depicting the horrors of the Holocaust, it provides a blueprint for how to tell stories about that era going forward. Say something. Show something. Give viewers a way to become more proactive.
If we allow it, Jojo Rabbit can mark the end of the traditional Nazi film and the beginning of resonant discourse and processing that furthers the betterment of humanity. With evolving hatred must come adaptable progress and Waititi, whether it’s entirely conscious or not, has offered up a hop-on point for newcomers to the discussion.
Waititi, ever the caricaturist, reduces Hitler to a goofy clown who, naturally, shares Jojo’s exuberant allegiance to Deutsches Jungvolk (German Youngsters in the Hitler Youth). But as Jojo drifts further from the cause, imaginary Hitler takes a disturbing shape: that of the genocidal dictator who marked history with terror, death, blood and tears. Following the death of Jojo’s mother, Waititi’s Führer grows more belligerent, sensing Jojo’s shift and fearing the boy’s newfound defiance. That’s as far as Waititi takes it. He is not diminishing or invalidating suffering by adopting a lighter tone. He is taking white supremacy and assigning it a different form. Jojo suffers plenty throughout the course of the film. Waititi keeps a tight grip on the film’s delivery of its themes and ensures that there’s intention behind every decision he makes.
Differences aside, what these movies do share is a tailored resonance. Pupil hit theaters in the ’90s, at a time when widespread intolerance existed but hadn’t been so openly encouraged in the United States. It played into a fear of what could happen and what has happened rather than a disgust toward what is happening. Bryan Singer called the story “a study in cruelty.” If that’s true, and if this exhaustive argument holds, that would make Jojo Rabbit a study in learned tolerance. Each sentiment carries a different weight and a different talking point.
Jojo Rabbit couldn’t exist in 1998 because white nationalism hadn’t resurfaced the way it has now. It would be speaking to an inattentive—and largely uninterested—audience. Apt Pupil wouldn’t fly today because it would only reinforce the harmful zeitgeist of our woefully divided country. People likely wouldn’t watch it.
Waititi’s whimsical interpretation makes its intentions to deviate abundantly clear. Jojo‘s source material, Caging Skies, is a darkly complex look at the interplay between prescriptive hatred and callow compulsion. Waititi is far more concerned with Jojo denouncing Hitler’s cruel doctrine than he is with fully exploring Jojo’s feelings toward his new friend. Rather cleverly, the film uses his friendship with her to communicate and convey his transformation. Again, Jojo’s apotheosis falls in direct contention with Apt Pupil‘s troubled protagonist. This matters because it fuels the evidence-heavy notion that Waititi’s film responds rather than reacts.
Put into a broader context, when examined together, both films depict fanaticism and hatred across generations, across time, and across continents. Jojo and Todd Bowden become opposites. One (Todd) seeks out a different reference group (a source from which he can subconsciously pull when making decisions), and the other (Jojo) stumbles into one. The contrast is so striking that it feels cosmically perfect, and we could learn a thing or two from how intolerance has evolved and how it might grow if we allow it to fester unchecked.