'Jojo Rabbit' And Hollywood's Long Struggle To Tell Accessible Stories About The Darkest Era Of Modern Humanity

The responsibility that we as a species have to ensure history lives on is a complicated one, and the role art plays in that gets even messier. With events like the Holocaust, the obligation to tell that story responsibly becomes even more critical. But that's not to say that fiction has no place in the narrative. Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit takes a look at very real horrors through the eyes of a child. As it turns out, children find much of the adult world absolutely ridiculous. It's needlessly complicated, unbearably messy, and most of the time they just don't know what all the fuss is about. What Waititi manages to do in Jojo Rabbit is incredibly complicated in that he shares a horrific tale through something incredibly unique, beautiful, devastating, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. Loose adaptations might often be lacking from the emotional punch of the source material, but this book nerd's not ashamed to say that she much prefers how Jojo Rabbit chooses to tell the tale. Let's be clear here—Waititi isn't the first director to tell a compelling story about World War II. What's so astonishing about his film is how it managed to balance the comedy, drama, and unbearable reality of one of the darkest times in world history. Each one of the below films either does part of what Jojo Rabbit does, or at least tries to. 

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

Most of us saw (and read) this one in middle school history class.  So far as cinematic adaptations go, The Diary of Anne Frank stays pretty spot on. There are a few factual inaccuracies, like the Dussel's being from Holland rather than Germany, when Anne actually received the diary, and chronologically speaking there's a decent amount out of order. Outside of that, Anne's story took a tragic, unbelievable event and gave you something to connect with. And that connection hurt like hell. The diary isn't dark. In fact, it's hopeful. The film brought that hope to life and showed a young woman with unwavering strength in an ocean of hate. The intent of Anne's diary may not have ever been to give young adults a connection to the horrors she lived through, but it's ultimately very important that it does. Learning about The Holocaust is devastating, and it should be. Stories like Anne's have to be told not just so she lives on, but because we're currently seeing firsthand what happens when people forget it. 

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is another film that takes a look at The Holocaust through the eyes of a child. Unfortunately, it struggles. I wish I could say that it struggles because of unfair comparisons to the previous story, but this fictional tale flounders all on its own. If you're Holocaust story is going to be a drama that plays it straight, it seems wise to avoid straying too far from the facts. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas chooses to use some liberties with history, but its biggest sin is trying to play both sides. Many Holocaust historians expressed discomfort with the film, even back in 2008. Drumming up sympathy for the Nazi family of the boy who has made friends with an imprisoned Jew makes for a more dramatic film, but it certainly doesn't make a responsible one. 

The Devil’s Arithmetic (1999)

It might be a little weird to feature a made-for-tv movie from the late nineties on this list, but what the heck! The Devil's Arithmetic is a strange flick, but an interesting take on the apathy of current generations to the horrors of the past. The film focuses on a Jewish American girl who finds herself exhausted by her family's constant stories. Before long, Hannah (Kirsten Dunst) is unwittingly transported back in time to a concentration camp where she eventually begins telling stories to keep up the spirits of the others who are imprisoned with her. The Devil's Arithmetic has all the oddness that you'd expect from a tv movie, but it's got a pretty solid message about empathy and the power of stories. A surprisingly impressive cast as well! 

Jakob the Liar (1999)

Jakob the Liar is the only entry here that doesn't feature children or young adults as a device to the tell the story, but it feels like the one of the closest in tone to Jojo Rabbit. The dramedy follows the tale of Jakob Heym (Robin Williams), a Jewish shop keep living in a ghetto of German-occupied Poland. After Jakob is falsely accused of being out past curfew, he's summoned to the German headquarters to be reprimanded. While there, he hears a broadcast talking about Soviet efforts that would inspire him to spread hope throughout the ghetto by way of a made-up radio.Unfortunately, news of hope spreads quickly. Knowing that hope leads to revolutions, the German soldiers quickly launch an investigation to find the fake radio. Once they learn that Jakob had made it all up, they try to force him to tell the truth. He chooses their hope over his life. Before the credits role, the ghetto is shown once again. But this time it's completely abandoned. Like Jakob's stories, the film's ending tells two tales: the likely reality, and the miracle we all dare hope for. 

Life is Beautiful (1997)

We close things out with another dramedy. Jakob the Liar was actually (unfairly) compared to Life is Beautiful quite a bit upon its initial release. The film focuses on Guido Orefice, his wife Dora, and their son, Giosue. After World War II breaks out, the family is quickly seized and taken to a concentration camp. Once there, Guido works to convince his son that they're playing an elaborate game. Though dangerous, it's the only thing that Guido can think to do to protect his young boy from the horrors they're about to experience. The rules he sets up for his son are pretty simple: any behaviors Guido knows will draw attention to his son loses him points, while good behavior earns them. The first person to one thousand points wins a tank.Giosue does win his tank and, in the end, Guido managed to protect what mattered most to him. The primary through lines in all of these films are pretty simple: hope and love. They're both complicated, weird, fickle, and sometimes fleeting emotions, but they can move mountains when properly motivated. They're also nothing without action. Jojo Rabbit focuses on a set of very specific choices, a misinformed little boy in a complicated world, and so much love that it makes your heart feel like it may burst from time to time. Like all of these films – even the misguided one – it reminds us just how important hope and love can be when hatred is tearing the world apart. So love. Don't get wrapped up in propaganda or false equivalencies. Fight with everything you have, hope with all your heart, and just love.And probably go see Jojo Rabbit as early as you can.