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Horrible Histories: Jojo Rabbit and 5 other films that poked fun at the past

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Taika Waititi’s new movie Jojo Rabbit takes satirical aim at a particularly dark period in history: Nazi Germany. The movie follows the titular Hitler Youth member (Roman Griffin Davis), whose world is turned upside down when he discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic.

Accompanying Jojo on his adventure of self-discovery is his idiotic imaginary friend, and leader of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler, played by Waititi himself. Adapted from Christine Leunens’ book Caging Skies, the movie also features Sam Rockwell, Stephen Merchant, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen.

Now, this may all sound rather bizarre and controversial, and indeed it is, but many reviewers have praised Waititi’s audacious approach. Writing for website The Wrap, Steve Pond enthuses: "There’s real heart in Jojo Rabbit, too. This is a dark satire that finds a way to make a case for understanding. As circumstances slowly chip away at Jojo's hate-driven worldview, the black comedy finds room for some genuinely touching moments."

And Waititi is far from the first director to poke fun at the past…

1. Blazing Saddles (1974)

Mel Brooks’ seminal comedy western contains so many iconic scenes, it’s likely your ribs will be tickled to the point of pain. From the campfire farting scene to Madeline Kahn’s wonderfully crass musical number as Lili Von Shtupp, Blazing Saddles’ bonkers humour and fourth-wall-breaking makes for a delightfully bizarre adventure in the Old West.

However, the film is also underpinned with a righteous ire, as Brooks and his co-writers, including famed comedian Richard Pryor, expose racial bigotry through the tropes of the Western genre. It is not just the comic expertise of Blazing Saddles, but also the narrative's successful assault on prejudice that has rightfully secured the movie as a classic.


2. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

"He’s not the Messiah! He’s a very naughty boy!” Has there ever been a better skewering of both the Roman Empire and the New Testament than Life of Brian? Emerging at the end of the seventies as one of the most quotable and controversial comedies of all time (it was banned all over the world), Life of Brian’s satirical critique of politics, religion and the blind fundamentalism is sheer brilliance.

From the People’s Front of Judea to the success of the aqueduct, Michael Palin’s lisping Emperor to the closing song ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, this is the Python team at the top of their game.


3. Life is Beautiful (1997)

Directed by and starring Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful is a peculiar cinematic achievement, turning a period as horrific as the Holocaust into a tragi-comedy.

Benigni stars as Jewish librarian Guido, who is taken to a concentration camp along with his young son. Using a mixture of humour and imagination, Guido does everything he can to protect his son from the horror of their situation, convincing him that it is all just an innocent game.

The film garnered very favourable reviews but was not without controversy, with some criticising Benigni’s use of humour within such a terrible context as being in poor taste. Despite this, Life is Beautiful is often held up a film that offers the possibility of hope in the face of devastating events, and it went on to win several Oscars.


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4. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds tells an alternate history of Nazi Germany as several rebellious factions attempt to assassinate the Third Reich leadership. The film, of course, contains all the intensity and overt violence that is synonymous with Tarantino, but sprinkled throughout are some genuine belly laughs.

The movie is dotted with memorable scenes and performances, including the Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz’s sinister ‘Jew Hunter’ Hans Landa, the uber-Britishness of Michael Fassbender’s Lieutenant Archie Hicox, and Brad Pitt’s character Aldo Raine attempting to speak Italian. In Tarantino's usual style, the film manages to locate much outrageous humour by rewriting one of the most devastating moments in human history.


5. The Death of Stalin (2017)

This black comedy comes from master of political satire Armando Iannucci (The Thick Of It), and details the power struggle that followed the death of Soviet revolutionary and politician Joseph Stalin in 1953.

The astonishing cast includes the likes of Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Paul Whitehouse, Jason Isaacs and Paddy Considine, all of whom transform Stalin’s appalling legacy into a superbly funny farce. The one-liners come thick and fast, Iannucci once again demonstrating his penchant for finding the absurd in the midst of darkness.

Jojo Rabbit is released in Cineworld cinemas on 3rd January 2020. What are your favourite films that have poked fun at history? Let us know @Cineworld.

Jon Fuge is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.