Taika Waititi Defends His Feel-Good Nazi Satire ‘Jojo Rabbit’: ‘It’s Not a History Lesson’
The talented New Zealand filmmaker behind “Boy” and “Thor: Ragnarok” opens up about playing a wacky Hitler and why “Jojo Rabbit” is the furthest thing from sympathetic to Nazis.
Taika Waititi went through a swastika phase as a kid. Not proudly, but with the compulsive fascination of a half-Jewish schoolkid discovering how easily reproduced the world’s most potent symbol of hate is. He’d etch them in his notebook—then quickly scribble in extra lines, disguising them as four-paned windows. He’d then get nervous about all the windows on his pages and draw houses, or sometimes skyscrapers, entire cityscapes full of windows. Hitler’s mustache became another thing he couldn’t get over; it just looked so absurd. It was the first thing about Nazis the future filmmaker learned to laugh at.
Wearing Hitler’s mustache himself was less funny. Standing on set three decades later directing his sixth feature in head-to-toe Hitler regalia—occasionally forgetting what he looked like, until the next skeeved-out stare or passing glimpse of himself in a mirror—was actually “super embarrassing,” as Waititi remembers it. But it would’ve embarrassed Hitler, too; this half-Maori Jew’s impression of him as the dim-witted product of a 10-year-old’s imagination. That’s where the fun of Waititi’s latest, Jojo Rabbit, starts: in stripping the losers who worshipped Hitler of their grandiosity, and reducing them to slapstick.
“Yes, they were scary and they were very dangerous people. But also, there’s this layer to them which was just really pathetic and kind of desperate,” Waititi says over a cup of orange juice the morning of Jojo Rabbit’s release. Stretching across a New York hotel’s patio sofa—feet up, elbow propped in a somewhat familiar pose—he takes aim, for a start, at Nazis’ uniforms: “If you look at all the little details, on their hats, there’s a skull and crossbones. On their belt buckles, there’s lightning bolts. They were all into this iconography and these weird symbols and things that only a 10-year-old would really think was cool.”
A loose adaptation of Christine Leunens’ 2004 novel Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit is a Waititi signature effort: as audacious and imaginative as it is heartbreakingly frank about its heroes’ naiveties and fallibilities. Like Waititi’s breakout feature Boy (2010) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), Jojo assumes a young outsider’s perspective—in this case, Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a lonely little boy coming of age in Hitler’s Germany. The rise of Nazism hits Jojo with the fervor of Beatlemania. He idolizes Hitler, and earnestly believes in the Third Reich’s mission, at least as he understands it: to rid the world of predatory, shape-shifting, baby-eating, actual fairy-tale monsters called “Jews.”
Waititi’s mother, let it be known, is of Russian-Jewish descent. His Maori paternal grandfather, his namesake, fought in North Africa and Italy during World War II, though he downplays the latter. (“Everyone’s grandfather fought in World War II in New Zealand,” he shrugs.) It isn’t that he finds Nazis “necessarily funny,” he stresses. But there are certain mundane surrealities he can still hardly believe. “The most ridiculous thing about them, to me, is all the weird little routines they had,” he says. “There’s rules that they made which, if we step back and look at them, just seem ridiculous and like a waste of time.”
The Nazi salute, for instance, and the fact that officers “had to say it again and again and again whenever they come into a room or meet people.” (In a memorable Jojo Rabbit bit, Gestapo officers chirp “Heil, Hitler” at each other for several long, unbroken minutes as one character after another enters the scene. It’s funny at first, then uncomfortable, then painful, until it loops back around to the point of parody.)
Jojo follows its central wannabe Nazi through his time in the Hitler Youth. He’s a misfit among them with an empathy problem; the kid’s too soft to kill even a rabbit, hence his classmates’ taunting nickname and the movie title. With his mother (Scarlett Johansson) often busy (we soon learn she is helping the resistance) and his dad out of the picture, Jojo turns to his imaginary best friend for comfort: Hitler, as played by Waititi.
Waititi caricatures the megalomaniacal leader as a juvenile, id-driven hype man—like Tyler Durden, if Durden were a child in the body of a 44-year-old dressed like Hitler. As Jojo discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish teenager named Elsa (Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic, a rift opens up between Jojo and Hitler, as the latter begins throwing tantrums over the kids’ blossoming friendship. Still, Jojo is beguiled by Elsa’s dry wit and humor. (When he asks her to draw “where Jews live,” she hands him back a picture of his head: “Yes,” she tells him. “That’s where we live.”) Slowly it dawns on him that Jews are not the mind-controlling, fantastical horned villains he believed.
Waititi wrote Jojo Rabbit eight years ago, after his mom passed along Leunen’s novel with effusive praise. But studios were hardly racing to greenlight a heartfelt Nazi satire. Waititi’s script sat untouched until 2017, when Fox Searchlight came to him with a proposal. They would make his movie on one condition: He must play Hitler himself. (His mom, for the record, barely blinked. “She’s used to me doing all sorts of crazy shit,” Waititi laughs. “It’s very hard to offend her.”)
He could not have foreseen the resurgence of far-right white nationalism that would make his Nazi comedy resonate differently today than it might have eight years ago. “It’s ironic and sad,” he says of the film’s accidental relevance. “It’s a shame that all that stuff is going on. But in a way, I feel like it’s a way better environment for this film to exist in. It probably has more of a chance of doing good or changing people’s opinions, maybe.” Not that he assigns it too much responsibility: “It’s not a history lesson, let’s put it that way.”
Jojo’s characters speak anachronistically—“Heil me, man!”—and the script hints at certain Nazis, especially Sam Rockwell’s Hitler Youth camp leader Captain Klezendorf, secretly sympathizing with the enemy. Some detractors argue, for this reason, that the film doesn’t go far enough in acknowledging the horrors of World War II-era Nazism. Waititi, for his part, “really wasn’t concerned that people would think I was sympathizing with Nazis,” he says. “I’m half-Jewish. I wasn’t, like, gonna fuck up my relationship with my family by doing that.”
“I know myself and I know my style and the message I’m trying to tell,” he adds. “I wanted to make sure the film felt like it was coming from the right place.” Rockwell’s character, he says, was written to show “that these people had lives before the war. This gay guy got caught up in this thing and had to hide who he was, and he pays for it.” The movie neither forgives the character nor lets him off the hook for his complicity, he says. As for Jojo, “he’s barely a Nazi. At the beginning of the film, he’s a 10-year-old who just wants to go to this cool camp and hang out with all the other kids.”
Waititi watched “a lot” of documentaries about Hitler Youth while writing Jojo Rabbit. “They were all being indoctrinated,” he says. “They were told, ‘Never listen to your family. Rebel against your parents. Listen only to us. And if your parents try and sit you down or criticize the party or us, tell us and then we will deal with your parents.’ So parents weren’t going to sit these kids down and say, ‘Well, Nazis are bad,’ because they could have been executed. It was a dangerous time to grow up in, and to live in, and to be a parent in.”
Jojo ends not unlike most of Waititi’s films: on a note of hopeful optimism and forgiveness. “At the end of the day, it’s a 10-year-old who’s been brainwashed into this thing,” Waititi says. “I feel that most people can be redeemed. Pretty sure 10-year-olds can be redeemed. The older you get, I’m not sure that really applies.”
The director, whose Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople are still the highest-grossing films in New Zealand, propelled to new fame in 2017 with Thor: Ragnarok, his iconoclastic, Led Zeppelin-heavy take on Marvel’s god of thunder. Ideas about families, outsiders, absent dads, and the naiveté of childhood can be traced from Jojo Rabbit back through Waititi’s short films, including the Oscar-nominated Two Cars, One Night. “Even Thor’s about abandonment issues,” he muses. He leans back again, laying his head on one armrest, propping his feet on the other, hands crossed in the middle. “This is like therapy, I’m in therapy mode,” he grins.
He wasn’t especially close with his own father when he passed away four years ago, though both his parents—his dad was an artist, and his mom a schoolteacher—encouraged Waititi’s creative pursuits from early on. (The absentee dad Waititi plays in Boy seems to have been modeled in part on his dad, down to the biker gang affiliation.) “I come from two cultures that are very resilient with a keen instinct for survival,” he says. “There were very, very acute and strong senses of humor. I think that’s where I’ve drawn from both sides.”
Stories about family have long fascinated him. “In the family dynamic, you’ve always got heroes, you’ve got villains, you’ve got clowns,” he says. “You’ve got the chorus in those aunties who all hang out and comment on everything. No matter what family you come from or where the family is, you always have the ability to find really satisfying stories and adventures and tragedies in those dynamics.” Not to mention a breadth of genre: “You get adventure stories, road trip stories, horror stories, everything.”
Telling stories through the perspective of children, as he has in every film apart from Thor, “when done well, can become way more emotional and more engaging for an audience,” he says. A father to two young daughters himself, he’s also intimately familiar with the honesty that entails. “Children, they don’t fuck around,” he laughs. “They will straight-up say to you, ‘You are ugly.’ Or, ‘You are a bad dad,’ or ‘you betrayed me.’ Some of it makes no sense, but at least they’re being honest about their feelings. When you see a film through that lens, I think that just feels like a more truthful telling of the events.”
Jojo Rabbit’s surprise win of the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, meanwhile, bodes well for its future at the Oscars. (Almost half the winners of that festival prize have gone on to be nominated for Best Picture, including 12 Years a Slave, La La Land, and Green Book.) A then 30-year-old Waititi made a memorable Oscars debut in 2005 by pretending to be asleep when Jeremy Irons listed his name among the best Live Action Short Film nominees. “I was just so exhausted,” he remembers now. “I’d been working on some other shit as well and just felt like I wanted to get through it.”
The food situation was grim, he recalls. Still, he admits he “loved it as well. I had only really just arrived in Hollywood and to suddenly be thrust into that part of it was quite cool. Seeing Hollywood celebrities and all that sort of shit.”
Potential Oscar glory is one of several bright spots on Waititi’s horizon. A live-action adaptation of the seminal anime Akira is in the works, following another Marvel sequel, Thor: Love and Thunder. Waititi says that the defeated, portlier version of Thor in Avengers: Endgame is his favorite version of the character so far. “I think Thor's at his most interesting when he’s got his own personal issues to deal with, rather than just being on a quest,” Waititi says. “So whatever it is that we figure out for him to do, I think the more interesting part of that journey will be seeing how he deals with the complication based on his emotional status.”
He directed the finale of the first live-action Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian, which will debut Nov. 12. And he’ll adapt Terry Gilliam’s 1981 time-travel fantasy adventure Time Bandits for Apple TV. It’s a lot on the plate of an artist who, in early interviews, often spoke of feeling like his “days as a filmmaker are numbered.” (“I cannot concentrate on anything for very long,” he said back then. “My attention drifts and I get interested in something else. I always say I’m going to do something really different, like fashion.”)
“That’s still true,” Waititi laughs now. “No, I feel like I’m not bored of it yet. But I can see myself running out of things to say, or maybe starting to feel like I wasn’t surprising myself enough. But so far I’m alright! I feel like I’ve probably got about 10 years at least. But I do feel like, eventually I might just want to try something completely different.
“I’ve got to keep surprising myself,” he smiles.