Fox Searchlight has two movies in this year’s Oscar race: Jojo Rabbit and A Hidden Life. They are linked by the same acclaimed studio as their distributor, and bound together by being set in the terrifying era when Europe was in the grip of Hitler’s ascendancy. With keen satire on the one hand and stark reality on the other, the two brilliant films tell two very different stories of the way people can either get swept up in fascism or else chose to resist it. Two parallel realities, one fiction and one fact, but both equally surreal.
In Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi casts Hitler as Jojo’s imaginary friend, portrayed as a ridiculous buffoon, a distorted figment of a 10-year-old’s imagination, and asks us to consider how easily a childish mind can be seduced by evil. In A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick creates another of his graceful epics, has us watch home movies of the real-life Hitler that show the affable image he could project, and asks us to contemplate how that maniacal charisma propelled riveting speeches to inflame his unspeakable schemes of mass genocide.
Sasha Stone with Ryan Adams
Both films take us intimately inside the lives ordinary of people to witness their responses to shockwaves of fascism that threaten to sweep them away. Both films are ultimately about resistance — arriving at the same conscientious decisions through wildly divergent pathways and tragically contrasting outcomes. Both films confront us with disturbing scenes that take us far outside our comfort zone, requiring us sit transfixed as we try to process the creeping, insidious brutality. In A Hidden Life, we’re first immersed in the idyllic everyday life of a rural farm family, which makes it all the more jarring to see how quickly the horrors of war can engulf a seemingly peaceful world. In Jojo Rabbit, we meet a sweet child whose life is very nearly corrupted beyond redemption when he falls prey to the strange magnetic fetishes of the Hitler Youth movement.
As emotionally demanding meditations on morality and the capacity of the human spirit to overcome the human propensity for wickedness, both films have had a hard time placing themselves in this year’s race, although by dint of its surefooted humor, Jojo Rabbit won the Audience award at Toronto. A Hidden Life played in Cannes and so far seems to be partly judged in the context of Malick’s previous distinguished films — such is the downside of having already gifted the world with so many cinematic marvels.
Justin Chang at the LA Times calls A Hidden Life Malick’s best film in years, writing:
“If God gives us free will, we’re responsible for what we do or what we fail to do, aren’t we?” Franz asks a local bishop. “If our leaders are not good, if they’re evil, what does one do?” The bishop coldly replies that he owes his unswerving allegiance to the Fatherland, but Franz is wise enough not to mistake the clergyman’s voice for God’s. As his doubts manifest themselves in small acts of defiance — refusing to donate money to the war effort, rebuking the local refrain of “Heil Hitler” — he and his wife become pariahs, scorned and attacked by their fellow villagers and taken to task by some of their own family, including Franz’s stern mother (Karin Neuhäuser) and Fani’s sympathetic sister (Maria Simon).
And Rogerebert.com’s Matt Zoller Seitz gives A Hidden Life four stars, writing:
Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life,” the true story of a World War II conscientious objector, is one of his finest films, and one of his most demanding. It clocks in at nearly three hours, moves in a measured way (you could call the pacing “a stroll”), and requires a level of concentration and openness to philosophical conundrums and random moments that most modern films don’t even bother asking for. It also feels like as much of a career summation as Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” combining stylistic elements from across Malick’s nearly 50-year filmography, somehow channeling both the ghastly humor and rooted in actual scenes (with beginnings and endings) that longtime fans remember from his early classics “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” and the whirling, fast-cut, montages-with-voiceover style that he embraced in the latter part of his career. It’s one of the year’s best and most distinctive movies, though sure to be divisive, even alienating for some viewers, in the manner of nearly all Malick’s films to one degree or another.
Divisive and alienating are terms that some critics seem to have applied to Jojo Rabbit, as though they think it will forever be too soon to laugh at Hitler. Satire might be hard for many people to parse in an era when we lack what we dearly need: a sarcasm font. When we’ve been conditioned to respond to what we see and hear on television shows or in films with a literal kneejerk reaction, there isn’t much wiggle room left for satire, which requires the ability to mock something monstrous to drain the power from its malevolence.
While savvy filmgoers know what to expect from the profound elegiac journeys of Terrance Malick, it seems the message at the heart of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit may have flown right over the heads of many critics. Meanwhile audiences have fallen hard for Jojo, giving it a 95% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Whatever it is that critics are searching for in films that address the surreal catastrophe of supremacist-infested societies—in America and around the world—the cultural confusion we’re living through, there’s perhaps more clarity in the real world where actual audiences dwell.
Thankfully, a few prominent critics understand Jojo Rabbit’s charms. TIME’s Stephanie Zacharek writes:
None of that, admittedly, makes Jojo Rabbit sound very funny. It’s Waititi’s ability to balance unassailably goofy moments with an acknowledgment of real-life horrors that makes the movie exceptional. (He adapted the screenplay from a novel, Caging Skies, by Christine Leunens.) Waititi establishes the tone–a vibe that will eventually take a hairpin twist–in the opening credits, setting the German version of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” against vintage footage of Führer-mad Germans cheering and saluting their idol.
The sequence is cheekily obvious. It’s also exhilarating, a suitable opening into the world of extremes Waititi is about to show us, in vivid, highly stylized colors: even Hitler’s eyes are an exaggerated, trustworthy blue. Many of the jokes, too, are delightfully obvious: a group of Gestapo officers is so large that once they’ve Heil Hitler!–ed everyone in their immediate vicinity, the words swirl into nonsense soup, like a round-robin homage to Mel Brooks.
Both Jojo Rabbit and A Hidden Life are two of the best and most powerful films of the year. Each in its own way, they strike at the core of our current calamity, tapping into our collective hope and despair, with thrilling imaginative flourishes that surpasses most other films in the race. Together they exemplify the theatrical mask of Janus, enthroned on opposite ends of movie narrative. One wields the sword of wickedly sharp black humor, and the other carries a radiant scepter as a lucent rumination on the banality of evil.