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Why ‘Jojo Rabbit’ is heading to a classroom near you

Last year, “Jojo Rabbit,” the Hitler Youth satire by Taika Waititi, charmed audiences and baffled skeptics, managing to be whimsical, winning and kind-hearted — while also featuring an imaginary Adolf Hitler who dines on unicorns. Now, the Oscar-winning film is on its way to classrooms as a teaching tool, aimed at educating young people about the historical reality that inspired it.

In the fall, the USC Shoah Foundation, which had seen an early screening of the film. teamed up with Searchlight Pictures (formerly Fox Searchlight) to integrate it into their curriculum.

“Everyone, I think, could see the enormous potential that the film could bring to promoting understanding around anti-Semitism, humanizing of ‘The Other,’ promoting empathy,” said Claudia Ramirez Weideman, associate director of education technologies and training for the foundation. “It was a no-brainer.”

Since 1994, the Shoah Foundation, based at the University of Southern California, has been committed to preserving the testimony of genocide survivors and witnesses for the purposes of building media literacy, historical understanding and empathy among middle and high school students. The “Jojo Rabbit Education Initiative,” launched last December, pairs the foundation’s digital history archive with materials from Waititi’s film, which follows Jojo, a member of the Hitler Youth whose mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their flat.

The Foundation has devoted a landing page to the film on their IWitness website, where educators and students can access notes on the film, featurettes and video testimony from eight survivors, recalling their memories of the Hitler Youth. Some of the survivors remember when their classmates, and even close friends, became involved in the Hitler Jugend, while others recall violence inflicted on Jews by members of the movement.

“Many times I came to school very late just trying to avoid these Hitler Jugend,” Esther Clifford said in her video testimony, remembering how the young men, in their brown uniforms, would throw rocks at Jewish kids.

“I went with my wife to go to a store and there was a group of Hitler Jugend — rotten kids — coming, and they fell on me and then beat me to a pulp,” survivor Eric Nash recalled.

“We have about 1,000 testimonies in our digital history archive, where survivors and other witnesses talk about the Hitler Youth one way or another,” said Weidman. “They can speak to the time of this film and therefore, we can use it to engage students in really powerful ways that film alone may not be able to accomplish.”

Waititi’s film is a manic take on the Hitler Youth program, employing humor to highlight the absurdity of hate and indoctrination. Waititi cast himself as Jojo’s imaginary friend, a childishly spiteful version of Adolf Hitler. The other Nazi adult characters — played by Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen and Rebel Wilson — are presented as dogmatic, myopic or incompetent while a crew of eerie “clones,” parodies of perfect Aryan children, point to the strangeness of Nazi racial purity.

“Because of this absurdity — the things that we see in films like this — it necessarily leads to questioning,” Weidman said. “Students wonder ‘Why are they making fun of this; why is this funny?’”

Included on the “Jojo Rabbit” page is a primer on satire and the Holocaust, referencing Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not To Be” and, Waititi’s hero Mel Brooks’s “The Producers.” (After winning his Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Waititi said that Mel Brooks’ approval of the film and the Shoah Foundation’s choice to use it in their curriculum were among the most meaningful recognitions he had received.)

The website, which can be used as a resource both before and after viewing the film, also features an activity called “Hiding” that connects the experience of Jojo’s hidden neighbor, Elsa, to the testimony of survivor Aaron Elster. Elster hid in an attic during the war and, like Elsa, spied on a child that lived below him. Students are asked to respond to Elster’s memories and imagine what it was like for him to live in hiding.

Other exercises have students study propaganda — of the kind the Hitler Youth leaders task Jojo with distributing in one of the film clips on the website — and hear testimony on othering, anti-Semitism and the bystander effect and reflect on what they see through worksheets, charts and poetry. The activities are programmed for late middle school and early high school students.

Weidman says she’s yet to receive feedback from educators, but noted that it often takes awhile for teachers to incorporate new items into their lesson plans. And more new material will be coming to the “Jojo Rabbit” page.

“That’s how confident we feel about the film,” Weidman said.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]

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