Jojo Rabbit offers a sharply funny, yet profoundly stirring, child’s-eye view of a society gone mad with intolerance. Drawing on his own Jewish heritage and his experiences growing up surrounded by prejudiceriter-director Taika Waititi (whose mother is Jewish, while his father is Māori) makes a powerful statement against hate with this pitch-black satire of the Nazi culture that gripped the German psyche at the height of WWII.
Waititi takes a story almost too appalling to approach with sober solemnity—that of a boy who, like many at that time, has been brainwashed into absolutely gung-ho devotion to Hitler. He then mines from it a dark, mesmerizing comedy that ultimately unravels the toxic ideas of anti-Semitism and persecution of the other. Balancing on a comedic high-wire, Waititi mixes the fury of satire with an insistent sense of hope that fanaticism
and hate can be overcome.
Nazis were parodied on screen as early as the 1940s when they were still very much a global threat—with the key being that the last laugh was always on them. As Mel Brooks once said: “If you can reduce Hitler to something laughable, you win.”
The tradition would stretch from Chaplin (THE GREAT DICTATOR), Lubitsch (TO BE OR NOT TO BE) and Brooks (THE PRODUCERS), to John Boorman (HOPE AND GLORY), Roberto Benigni (LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL) and even Quentin Tarantino (INGLORIOUS BASTERDS). It often sparked controversy. The Jewish comedian Jack Benny’s own father was said to have walked out of the theatre at the shock of his son portraying a Gestapo officer in TO BE OR NOT TO BE. But the film also moved generations, and today is considered a masterful example of how the most ferociously irreverent satire can become a springboard to multi-faceted, humanistic storytelling.
Stephen Merchant, who plays a drippingly dark Nazi Captain in Jojo Rabbit, notes: “Both during and after the war, Hitler was routinely mocked because it was a way of people dealing with the horror they were seeing. Taika is following in that same tradition, but with his own modern voice.”
Waititi knew he had to give audiences a reason to follow Jojo into his world. “I had to find ways of letting you care about Jojo,” he explains. “One way was to show that in truth he feels bullied, scared and insignificant in the larger scheme of things, and he has grand dreams, as all kids have.”
In another departure, Waititi placed a resilient mother-son bond at the heart of his movie. He turned Rosie Betzler not only into a single mother, but also a defiant woman who decides that so long as ideals of empathy and tolerance are being pushed to the margins, she will work fearlessly to uphold them. Contrary to Jojo, she sees all too clearly the poisonous world Hitler is forging, so her natural response is to help, as she says,
by “doing what she can”—which in her passionately practical way is a lot. But that also means hiding the truth of her life from Jojo to keep him safe, while hoping her little boy comes to his senses.
“There are a lot of powerful women in my life so I also wanted this to be a story about a really strong solo mom who is trying to save her son and others from this horrible situation, but at the same time trying to retain Jojo’s innocence,” says Waititi. “A main touchstone for me was Scorsese’s ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. I’ve always loved Ellen Burstyn’s portrait of a mother in that film because she’s goofy and fun and
reminds me of my mom, so that was something I aimed for with Rosie.”
While the film invites in such anachronisms as Beatles and Bowie tunes, as he wrote, Waititi immersed himself in WWII books and documentaries. “I read a lot about the German psyche before the war, and the question of how it was possible to indoctrinate the entire country, how they preyed upon the desperation of the people after a depression,” he explains. “I watched some documentaries, like WORLD WAR II IN COLOUR and HITLER’S CHILDREN, THE HILTLER YOUTH, to get a sense of how things really looked. I wanted to be mostly accurate, playing only with music, palette and the language.”
The more Waititi wrote, the more Jojo’s awakening seemed to mirror how the world reacted after WWII: stunned by a collective human loss of innocence, then uniting to affirm that hateful ideas would never again be allowed to take hold like that. And yet, the times are changing again.
“Around the time we were going into production, we started seeing more and more resurgence of this way of thinking,” notes Waititi, “and it became even more urgent to tell the story. I feel like I’m in good company with comedies like THE GREAT DICTATOR where we’re poking fun but also trying to warn how serious things are right now. It’s also a reminder that Hitler was really recent in terms of human history and we’ve got to keep talking about it, because the dynamics that caused it aren’t going away.”
Waititi never held himself back in the writing, knowing that to say what he wanted to say he had to go for it unflinchingly. “As an artist you always want to challenge yourself, and if I don’t worry that a project could be a disaster, then it’s not really worth it for me,” he confesses. “I like my work to feel dangerous enough going in that it could fail. Because that’s when I start scrambling, I start trying to make it the best thing possible, and that’s
where I get the most creative and inventive.”