Taika Waititi never did get used to looking into mirrors and seeing Adolf Hitler staring back at him. “I’m usually quite lively on set, and I like to make everyone feel comfortable,” he recalls of his days shooting Jojo Rabbit. “I’d just be waltzing around and then catch a glimpse of myself. Oh, right, I’m dressed as one of the most evil people in human history.”
Technically speaking, Waititi (who, let the record state, was born in New Zealand to a Maori father and a Jewish mother) doesn’t play the historical Hitler in Jojo Rabbit. Rather, he plays a buffoonish, make-believe version of the Führer who serves as an imaginary best friend to 10-year-old Johannes, played by Roman Griffin Davis, a hapless but eager member of the Hitler Youth — as all boys considered “racially pure” had to be at the time — and the protagonist of Waititi’s film.
Those are a lot of words that maybe shouldn’t all exist in the same sentence, and they speak to the wild tonal balancing act that the writer-director-actor-comedian is attempting here. Jojo Rabbit is a goofy and colorful and occasionally harrowing comedy set in a small town in Germany in the closing months of World War II; it follows Johannes, nicknamed Jojo, as he discovers, much to his horror, that his beautiful and lively mother (Scarlett Johansson), who has been raising him on her own, has been secretly harboring a Jewish teenager named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) inside the walls of their tasteful bourgeois home. It’s a conundrum for the boy: If he turns in Elsa, he’s also turning in his mother. Injured while trying to show the other kids in the Hitler Youth how tough he is, Jojo has been recuperating, mildly disfigured, at home. There, he and Elsa begin to engage in a battle of wits. The film has moments of broad slapstick, surreal visual gags, and silly dialogue. (Early on, Hitler tells Jojo that he’s “the bestest, most loyal little Nazi I’ve ever met … Heil me, man.”) There are also scenes of corpses hanging in the tidy town square.
“It was a really hard story to explain to people,” Waititi says of his attempts to describe the movie over the years. “You could just see their faces start to drop, like, ‘Oh God, Taika’s lost it.’” On the day we meet, he’s sporting a luxurious mustache and a tuft of curly hair as he lies barefoot on a couch in a sparsely decorated, dimly lit “meditation room” at the Marvel offices on the Disney lot, where he has started work on Thor: Love and Thunder, a sequel to his 2017 hit Thor: Ragnarok (the success of which presumably gave him the cover — and the clout — to get Jojo green-lit). A passerby might think we’re having a therapy session. And indeed I do have a lot of questions on my notepad about why he decided to make a heartwarming coming-of-age comedy in which he co-stars as Hitler. Why’d he take that role? “I don’t usually need much encouragement — I’m happy to put myself in my films — but this one felt weird because I’m Polynesian and I do not look like him at all.” But, he says, Fox Searchlight insisted. “I went for a meeting, and I was like, ‘Okay, now we have to go and ask actors, “Who wants to be Hitler?”’ And they were like, ‘Well, we actually would be more interested in making it if you played that role.’”
Jojo Rabbit has already proved divisive among critics. In a time when authoritarianism is being met with enthusiasm around the world and the lessons of the past seem less distant and settled, making a satire about a kid who loves being a fascist is a tricky endeavor. There will certainly be those who feel Waititi hasn’t treated the evil of the Third Reich with the gravity it deserves, especially since he’s making a high-profile project being released by Disney (which bought Fox while he was working on the film) in the heat of awards season, when every ambitious movie gets subjected to extra layers of hype, scorn, and backlash.
In some ways, Waititi might have had an easier time of it if he’d made the film back in 2010, when he had only two indie features to his name and he first read Christine Leunens’s novel Caging Skies, on which Jojo Rabbit is based. His mother had told him about the book, and before reading it, he imagined a comedy from what she had described to him. He’d also been reading about the Bosnian War, in which fascist violence rose up again in the aftermath of the Cold War. “It just struck me that we were doomed to keep repeating these things,” he says.
To be clear: Caging Skies is in no way, shape, or form a comedy. It’s a densely researched, melancholy historical drama set in Vienna and told through Johannes’s delusional eyes. There’s no imaginary Hitler egging him on or high-fiving him. Leunens wrote the book over a five-year period at the Mémorial de Caen in Normandy, a World War II museum where her husband was working. “For five years, every five minutes, I heard the bombers going off, and I had a Hawker Typhoon hanging over me,” she recalls of her immersion in the period. Each day to get to work, she had to pass by life-size photos of Holocaust victims. She’s also haunted by stories of her own family members who were in the camps, including one great-uncle whom the Nazis injected with petrol after he’d dared to pray over the body of a boy that was being eaten by dogs.
At the time Waititi and Leunens met in 2010, Leunens had seen the director’s early shorts and his second feature, Boy, about a young Maori’s idolization of his crooked, deadbeat father (played by Waititi). “I found Boy incredibly sad even though it’s considered a comedy,” she says. “I felt that Taika and I were pretty much from the same artistic family, with the difference being that I lean more toward drama and I put some laughs inside, and he leans more toward humor and he puts the harder bits inside.”
Leunens gave him the freedom to do what he wanted with the movie. She understood that there was no way for him to simply replicate her dense, detailed, and very internal story. (The book also covers a wider swath of history, including the postwar period in its second half.) “Going from my medium to his medium,” she explains, “he had to do something more powerful because you experience a film much the way you yourself dream.” Waititi toiled on the screenplay for years, often tossing out entire drafts and starting all over again. He eventually sent her the script with the message, “It’s still your baby. I’ve just changed the clothes.” Leunens says she loves the film and still finds it profoundly sad beneath the surface humor.
That’s because it is profoundly sad. Jojo Rabbit is about a young boy’s awakening to the fact that everything he knows to be true is instead a monstrous illusion. He’s a 10-year-old who wants to fit in and be liked, and he has been seduced by the vibrant, colorful propaganda — the sense of a collective master-race mission — of the time. One of the film’s earliest scenes is a montage set to “Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand,” the Beatles’ German-language recording of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” in which we see black-and-white documentary footage of crowds — largely young people — going mad for Hitler. Watching it, I get chills wondering if my own child could one day be possessed like this. Though Jojo Rabbit is billed as an “anti-hate satire,” its real power lies in showing how the moral compasses of the most innocent among us can easily be twisted in evil new directions, especially if the adult world around them has also gone mad.
Well, not all the adults, exactly. Jojo’s mother, Rosie, works for the Resistance, though she doesn’t dare reveal this to her son. She seems perplexed by his enthusiasm for Nazism, but she understands that keeping up appearances — like making sure Jojo shows up for his Hitler Youth camping trip — will keep him safe. Given the reality of a fascist police state, Rosie has to be careful in how she confronts his childish beliefs. When they see a group of bodies hanging from nooses in the square, she makes sure he doesn’t turn away. “What did they do?” the boy asks. “What they could,” the mother replies.
Almost all Taika Waititi films portray someone — usually a child — slowly realizing their world is built on lies. Even Thor: Ragnarok, for all its irreverent intergalactic action, turns on Thor’s discovery of the horrifying past of his beloved home planet, Asgard. (Waititi calls Ragnarok a film “about imperialism collapsing” and describes the Asgardians as “a civilization of conquerors. They went out and visited other worlds and drained their resources and put them back to build their castles out of gold.”)
To place us in his protagonist’s delusional, optimistic state of mind, Waititi pursued a dynamic, cheerful aesthetic in Jojo Rabbit’s early scenes. “A child experiences the world through color and sounds and excitement, so the introduction of the colorful palette was necessary to explain that perspective,” says production designer Ra Vincent, who’s worked with the director on several films, including Ragnarok and the 2014 vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows.
“A lot of WWII films,” Waititi says, “it’s just very dull, muted tones — a lot of browns, and grays, and it’s desaturated, and it’s always raining. And while you don’t want to paint this period as a bright, happy time, it was a very vibrant world. For a kid, it was like growing up in a circus or a candy store. Everything is designed to make the world seem amazing and like the greatest place on earth — even though these atrocities are happening underneath it all.”
He adds, “Towards the end of the war, when everyone knew that it was basically over, people would go out every day thinking that was the day they were going to die. So they’d wear their best clothes. The women would put on all their makeup, put on their stockings. The message was, ‘If I’m going to go out, I’m going to go out looking good and at a party.’”
A different kind of vibrancy could be found in Jojo’s family’s house. Waititi and Vincent imagined it as a typically baroque structure filled with modern, Art Deco designs and beautiful pieces of art — the kind the Nazis wouldn’t have liked — to indicate not just the “well-off, socialite” origins of the boy’s parents, but also to hint at the mother’s spirit of resistance.
These settings also allowed Waititi to modulate Jojo Rabbit’s tone in subtle ways, such as cut-aways at key moments to make it look like the very houses around them were spying on the characters. The production was based mostly in Prague and the small, well-preserved Czech towns of Zatec and Ustek, which had escaped bombing during the war and were filled with houses that seem to spy on you. “In the Czech Republic, over generations, they’ve had dictators come in and kind of ruin the country overnight,” says Vincent. “And even the windows look like they’ve got suspicious-looking eyes.”
It would be silly, however, to claim that Jojo Rabbit is an authentic portrait of life in Nazi Germany. “If we treat it like something that happened 80 years ago and we keep it in that historical box, then we assume it can never happen again,” Waititi says. The characters move and talk like people from today’s world. Sam Rockwell’s Hitler Youth camp leader, Captain Klenzendorf, reminds you of Bill Murray in any number of Wes Anderson films.
For McKenzie’s Elsa, “I wanted it to feel like she could have been in Heathers,” Waititi notes. “She might have been part of this cool crew at school, but now she’s the last one left and she’s got to hang out with a 10-year-old Nazi. Can you imagine how annoyed you’d be?” Much of the film’s pathos — as well as its humor — comes from the give-and-take between the confident Elsa and the half-baked racism of Jojo, as the boy, having been brainwashed by ideas about Jews having horns and eating babies and controlling people’s minds, tries to get the girl to tell him more about, and even draw pictures of, all the other terrible things Jews do. (“I said to draw where Jews live. This is just a stupid picture of my head.” “Yes. That’s where we live.”) Of course, he gets a crush on her.
To hammer home his anachronistic approach, Waititi also cast recognizable comic actors like Rebel Wilson, who plays a particularly overzealous Hitler Youth camp counselor, and Stephen Merchant, who plays a creepy Gestapo official whose face lights up when he sees all the Hitler paraphernalia in Jojo’s bedroom. In keeping with the director’s style of working, the cast improvised endlessly. Waititi recalls shooting lots of alternate death scenes for Hitler at the end. (Spoiler alert: Hitler dies.) “One of them was just two minutes of me doing bad acting, dying in this room and rolling around on the floor and going out the doors.” He says he enjoyed making Hitler suffer.
“It was very tempting to use all of that improvisation because it was funny at the moment,” says editor Tom Eagles. “But as soon as you sit down in front of the film, the realities of what you’re representing kick in as well.” Waititi likes to test lots of different cuts of his pictures. He recalls doing edits of What We Do in the Shadows that had all the jokes removed to develop the characters better, then doing versions that were almost nothing but jokes. (“Nobody cared about the characters,” he says of those cuts.)
Editing Jojo Rabbit was treacherous. Waititi worried: “Have we pushed it too far into the absurd? And is that undermining the profundity of what I’m trying to say? Or has it become too dramatic and now it’s just not entertaining at all?” One of their biggest challenges, says Eagles, was “giving people permission to laugh without making light of the subject matter.” They screened different cuts of the film repeatedly — first to friends, then to test audiences and focus groups. “Most people were down with it,” says Eagles, “but there was a certain section of the audience who were just like, ‘We can never laugh at this.’ ”
The breakthrough came with the opening, a pep talk Hitler gives to Jojo. Originally, Hitler wasn’t in the scene, and the boy had to express both his fanaticism and his self-doubt. Only in reshoots did Waititi decide to add Hitler — well, himself as Hitler. “The moment that we gave him someone to bounce off of and express those doubts to, you immediately saw the nature of the relationship and understood why Hitler’s even in the film,” says Eagles. “It also planted a flag out front and said, ‘This is going to be a film about Nazis, and it’s going to be completely ridiculous — and either you’re going to walk out of the cinema right now or you’re with us.’ ”
About that last part: When Jojo Rabbit premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in early September, it was met with a combination of raves and pans. Some thought it didn’t go far enough. Some thought it had gone too far. Some enjoyed being conflicted. (“Even if I don’t love Jojo Rabbit, I love that it exists and that Waititi has forced me to reexamine my own responses,” wrote New York’s David Edelstein.)
And some thought it was just right. It was the surprise winner of the festival’s People’s Choice Award, which over the past decade has become a reliable predictor of future Oscar glory. (Previous victors include Green Book, La La Land, 12 Years a Slave, and The King’s Speech.) The win was so unexpected that it took more than a dozen calls from Fox Searchlight executives and Waititi’s personal assistant to even locate the director, who was in California at a friend’s wedding. Eventually, they had to call some other friends, who were staying with him, early on a Sunday morning to get Waititi to respond. “Do those guys understand weekends?” he recalls thinking. “There was a strong chance I was going to turn that phone off.”
So maybe the timing is good, after all. Waititi is not unaware of this uneasy historical moment when some form of fascism — in Hungary, in Austria, in Brazil, in America — appears to be ascendant, and he says he’s glad he waited until now to make his film. He grimly recalls learning of the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand while editing Jojo Rabbit. “They’ve been there for years,” he says of white supremacists in New Zealand, though, let’s be fair, he could be talking about white supremacists anywhere. “People would say we learned our lesson after World War II. Turns out we didn’t learn shit.”
Jojo Rabbit opens October 18.
*A version of this article appears in the October 14, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!