With a freshly minted Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Taika Waititi has even more reason to thank his mother for introducing him to the novel that inspired his hit comedy, Jojo Rabbit.
Taika Waititi credits his mum with introducing him to Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies (on which Jojo Rabbit is loosely based), even if her interpretation was slightly skewed.
“My mum read Caging Skies and was explaining the concept to me, saying how it was about a boy in Hitler Youth and his mother is hiding this girl in the attic. The way she described it sounded so cool and I thought it was a great film idea,” he explains.
“But when I read the book, it wasn’t exactly how my mum described it,” he adds with a laugh. “So I started writing it myself, more like how my mum had explained the book – and then the imaginary friend character came into the story and a lot more of the humour and essentially the core of that story about a young boy who is indoctrinated and has to learn to understand. The idea was kind of like having a monster in the attic, but who is just human.”
Waititi describes Jojo Rabbit as “a bit of a love letter to mothers,” especially solo mothers. “I have a single mum and I didn’t realise until I had my own children that she would have done anything for me – and she did,” he adds.
“That’s why the mother is the most important element in the film for me – and probably the only grounded character in the movie, too. She’s a clown and just trying to save her kid,” he says of Scarlett Johansson’s charming Rosie Betzler, a single mother who hides a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in her attic – even if her 10-year-old Hitler youth son Jojo initially disapproves.
“Scarlett is actually like that; she’s a mother and she’s a funny goofball, you learn when you hang out with her. But she’s also fiercely protective, and that’s really what I was looking for in that role. When I became a parent myself, I realised how hard it is. And trying to raise a child alone, it’s hard enough let alone a war, when you are trying to salvage whatever you can from your child who is being brainwashed and pulled away from you. And so you use whatever tools you can in this situation.”
Part Wes Anderson, part Springtime for Hitler, Waititi’s dazzling takedown of fascist thinking never fails to amuse, using biting satire to convey serious issues with surprising warmth. Indoctrinated into the Nazi youth movement, Jojo (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis) doesn’t initially share the same worldview as his mother. Taught to hate Jews and think of them as monsters, he struggles because of his small size and leans on his own personal Hitler [Waititi] as a sounding board. A cuddly, energetic, pep-talking version of the Führer, he becomes an unlikely father figure to the boy with an egregious blind spot.
Growing up, Waititi found himself wanting a father figure in his life. “So I think it’s no different for a boy growing up in Nazi Germany without a father,” says the self-described Polynesian Jew whose own Hitler is so truly hilarious, even a nuanced expression elicits uproarious laughter.
While Waititi can usually find a way of casting himself in his movies, he actually had no intention of playing the dictator when he wrote the script for Jojo Rabbit eight years ago.
“This was one of the ones where I thought, ‘no way can I justify getting myself in this movie.’ Then I got distracted and went off and made three other movies: What We Do in the Shadows, Wilderpeople and Thor. After that I came back to the script and Fox Searchlight got in touch and said that they loved it and wanted to make it, but they were only interested in making it if I play Hitler. So it was really their idea, and I thought they were crazy. And when I watch the movie, I still think they’re crazy,” he laughs.
When asked if it’s a risky move making a movie about Hitler and the Nazis in today’s sensitive climate, Waititi concedes that while that could be the case, Jojo Rabbit is unlikely to offend anybody.
“There’s nothing controversial about this film. Believe me, I’d love to have the label of ‘the bad boy of cinema’ or a rebel, but I’m not. I’m really polite and from New Zealand, and I’m making a film that has a really simple message, which is ‘just be nice to each other.’
“There are a lot of [comedic] elements in the film that were taken from actual events and stuff,” he adds, “like those robot costumes you see when the Nazis are hunting for metal. They were taken from archival photos.”
Nevertheless, the film still walks a precarious high wire, savaging the anti-Semitism of the Nazi era while identifying pointed parallels to today’s fascist groupthink. Waititi, who has long had a gift for infusing even his wildest comedies with real heart, guides this film from taboo-breaking scenes reminiscent of Monty Python or Mel Brooks into far more emotional territory – a singular and essential response to both history and our current moment.
“In 1933 when Hitler got into power, little by little every single day or every week, there was one small change or one thing where people said, ‘that’s wrong’. But it wasn’t big enough to really get anyone up in arms and it wasn’t big enough until it was too late,” he says, addressing the learned hate which still exists in today’s political climate.
“You think it will never happen again but that’s exactly what they said in 1933, ‘Nothing will be as bad as the First World War’.
“That ignorance and the arrogance that allows us to forget is a big human flaw. So it’s important to keep telling these stories again and again. We have to keep remembering and keep finding new and inventive ways of telling the same story so children can listen and grow and move forward unified and with love in the future.”