With Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi–following in the footsteps of Mel Brooks and Charlie Chaplin–has made a funny and poignant satire about Nazis in 2019. It’s a coming-of-age comedy starring a young boy in Nazi Germany that is hilarious, emotional, and topical, thanks to Waititi’s unique sensibilities.
Jojo Rabbit stars Roman Griffin Davis as the titular Jojo, who is obsessed with everything Nazi-related–and also has an imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler himself, played by Waititi. Jojo is an enthusiastic Nazi youth, but he gets his worldview turned upside down once he discovers a Jewish girl named Elsa who his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in their attic.
GameSpot was able to talk to writer-director Taika Waititi (director of Thor: Ragnarok) and co-star Stephen Merchant (who plays Gestapo agent Captain Deertz) with a select group of journalists after the film’s US premiere at Fantastic Fest in September, to discuss the making of the movie, tackling the thorny subject matter, and turning Hitler into a subversive comedy icon.
The opening credits of Jojo Rabbit play over a montage of vast German crowds going absolutely insane for Hitler, all while a German-language cover of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” plays over their fanatical cheers. Treating Hitler like the Beatles seems like an odd choice, but for Waititi, it made sense.
“For me it was that Hitler was like a pop star for Jojo,” the filmmaker explained. “Where I had posters of bands in my bedroom when I was growing up, I feel like in those days Hitler was that for some people. It is very easy to see how people can become enamored and brainwashed by these personalities.”
This is an important aspect of what makes Jojo Rabbit such a special and important movie today. Jojo isn’t portrayed as a monster, but as a dumb little boy who wanted to be accepted by a group and chose the worst club to join. When he meets Elsa, she quickly dismisses him not as a violent monster, but as a kid who got involved with the wrong crowd. “I don’t think that Jojo is an idiot,” Waititi explained. “When children were indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth and were taught all these ideas, a lot of them were very bright kids, but that doesn’t mean that they were not easily influenced.”
For Merchant, this feels relevant to today’s politics. “I think what’s interesting is the film’s humanizing of people with Nazi beliefs,” Merchant told us. “Because there’s this tendency to demonize them as this other thing, and I think the danger with that is that it suggests that it couldn’t happen again. Not to us, because we’re right-minded people. What Jojo plays into is the way people can easily be seduced by the dark side.”
Though the first trailer focused on the comedy aspect of the movie, the “Nazi summer camp” that was prominently shown only lasts about 15 minutes, after which Jojo Rabbit becomes a poignant and at times quite emotional coming-of-age tale. For Stephen Merchant this use of comedy as a hook was what drew him into the movie.
“Taika uses humor as a way of kind of seducing and relaxing an audience,” Merchant told us.
Indeed, though the first act of the movie gets plenty of laughs at the expense of the ideology that has turned the kids at the summer camp into mindless drones, Jojo Rabbit quickly becomes more dramatic as it introduces the reality of the war and what it was done to people. The movie then starts getting darker and darker as it shows things like children being used as soldiers, and public hangings for those who were considered different.
Despite dealing with heavy and serious subjects, Jojo Rabbit doesn’t go fully into the horrors of the war. We see people dying, but it is always off-screen. We glimpse the people who’ve been publicly executed, but only their dangling feet. For Waititi, this was very much intentional.
“I wanted to keep it like Rugrats,” the director explained, as everyone in the room chuckled. “I wanted the movie to feel like it came from a kid’s point of view and how they interpret these things. When I was a child seeing violence in my life, my memories are not accurate. I think they’ve been put through a child’s filter where they feel more cinematic or cartoonish. So I wanted to keep some sort of innocence around this stuff and not be gratuitous. I don’t want to see people get shot in my films, really. I don’t need it to be graphic.”
Jojo Rabbit hits theaters Friday, October 18.