Director Taika Waititi On 'Jojo Rabbit'
NOEL KING, HOST:
Director Taika Waititi's new movie is an unusual, though not unheard of take on Nazi-era Germany. It's a very dark comedy. I talked to Waititi earlier this week, and I asked him about the main character, a boy named Jojo Rabbit.
TAIKA WAITITI: Well, where do I start? He's a little boy in the Hitler Youth (laughter). Have I lost you yet? And like any young German boy, at that point in history, is living in Germany. They want to grow up to be the best little Nazi they can.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOJO RABBIT")
ROMAN GRIFFIN DAVIS: (As Jojo) I swear to devote all my energies and my strength to the savior of our country, Adolf Hitler.
KING: Jojo has an imaginary friend.
WAITITI: Oh, well, spoiler alert. I was about to say that. But yeah, his imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler played by none other than me, a Polynesian Jewish New Zealander named Taika Waititi.
KING: The movie is called "Jojo Rabbit." And ultimately, Jojo becomes friends with a Jewish girl and he is changed. Still, it's an edgy premise, and it took some convincing to get this movie made.
So you were told, essentially, if you want to make this movie, you were going to play Hitler.
WAITITI: Yeah. And we discussed it. And I thought, you guys are nuts because it doesn't make any sense. I'm like a brown Polynesian from New Zealand. I don't - it's a weird idea. But they made a great point, which is that the way that character was written, I think in the hands of someone who's overthinking it, it might actually get twisted into, I guess, more of an authentic portrayal of Hitler...
KING: Oh, jeez.
WAITITI: ...That was never the intention. The only way that character works is if you play it for exactly what it is, which is a 10-year-old's idea of an imaginary friend. So you can only know what a 10-year-old knows. And it basically has to be a 10-year-old in a grown-up's body.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOJO RABBIT")
WAITITI: (As Adolf) When someone tries to use mind powers on me, you know what I do? Use mind powers back on them. Remember last year when that one-armed pirate Von Stauffenberg tried to blow me up with a table bomb?
DAVIS: (As Jojo) Yeah, you survived.
WAITITI: (As Adolf) Correctamundo (ph). But the only reason I survived, apart from having bombproof legs, is because I outwitted old Von Stauffy (ph). I let him think that I was dead when, in actual fact, I was absolutely fine.
If we had cast a big-time celebrity person, I think the whole focus from what the film was actually about, which is this beautiful story between these two kids set in a time of darkness, it would have been overshadowed by the idea of this big celeb playing Hitler.
KING: There is something really chilling about seeing Nazi German society from the perspective of a very small child. Did you want this movie to be chilling?
WAITITI: Yeah. I mean, I didn't want to make some crappy saccharine film, something that just was set in World War II and just had jokes at the expense of the experiences of millions of people. You have a big responsibility when you come to making a film set in that time. I feel like if people don't get the point of using humor to dismantle these regimes built on intolerance and hate, I'm wasting my time with the person I'm explaining it to.
KING: But does it get your hackles up? I see what you're saying.
WAITITI: It does. I don't even know what you're going to - yes, it does.
KING: (Laughter) There's this thing I hear you driving at and I'm trying to figure out - are you responding to some of the criticism of this film which is you shouldn't make a movie in which Nazis are buffoons because the Nazis weren't buffoons? They were efficient killers. They weren't funny. Like, at any point in the making or the marketing or the release of this movie, did your mind change about anything?
WAITITI: I wrote this film in 2011. I started making the film in 2017. So it's not like over six years, I wasn't considering all angles. And for people to say, oh, you know, you can't really mix these two things, you know, tonally, you can't mix humor with Nazis and - blah, blah, blah. It's been 80 years this year since Charlie Chaplin released "The Great Dictator." And I do think that since then, there have been a few other people who have done the exact same thing I'm doing.
KING: Can I offer two rebuttals because...
WAITITI: You can offer one.
KING: OK, I can offer one rebuttal. No, but they're both good...
WAITITI: You can offer four. I'll give you five rebuttals.
KING: No, they're both good rebuttals. OK, listen. But I'll make them quick.
OK. First thing is I was reading about something that Charlie Chaplin said about "The Great Dictator" which was that if he had known when he was making the movie about the concentration camps, he wouldn't have made the movie. He wouldn't have been able to do it. He was able to make the movie at that time because the full depth of Nazism's evil had not yet been revealed.
And I thought about that a lot after I watched your movie because Charlie Chaplin was, in a sense, saying, I was innocent. I didn't know how bad they were. And you believe him, right? He was making the movie before we knew about concentration camps, before we knew about...
WAITITI: That's still an important movie. It doesn't matter if they regretted doing it. It still pokes holes in Nazism and fascism. And regardless of whether he knew about the camps or not, since he made the film, there have been numerous other films by filmmakers who did know, people who were still determined to make fun of these people and to make - you know, and to - the way that to combat bullying is to make fun of bullies. Yes, we do live in the safety of 2019, but...
KING: But that was actually my second rebuttal. Can I jump in?
KING: In 2019, in this country and in other countries, particularly in Europe, people are worried about Nazis again. People are worried about a nationalist resurgence and authoritarian resurgence. People are actively worried about actual Nazis.
WAITITI: Why is that a rebuttal?
KING: Because you're saying that we have nothing to worry about. You're saying that...
WAITITI: I'm not saying that at all.
KING: ...From the safety - and I'm quoting you back to you - from the safety of 2019. I mean, we have Nazis in this country marching through the streets.
WAITITI: Yeah, and you stopped me halfway through my point.
KING: OK, sorry. Go ahead, please.
WAITITI: Now, so we think we live in the safety of 2019. Yes, we don't have to worry about Hitler and his retribution on us for making jokes about him. I mean, this film shouldn't really need to be made. In 2019, do I really need to make a film with the heart of the message being, you shouldn't be a Nazi? At the end of World War II, there was a very clear and simple law. If you're a Nazi, you go to jail because there's no room in this world for you and those ideas.
Now, sadly, in America and other places, the law now is if you're a Nazi, feel free to go down to the town square and have a little rally because we've got this thing called freedom of speech. And you can sort of say what you want, and you're protected by that. It's become very twisted.
And so if anyone says, oh, well, another World War II film. No, we get it. That was 80 years ago. Well, we obviously don't get it because we're getting dangerously close to this sort of thing happening again. And we're living in a world where there are world leaders who are very happy to promote hate and intolerance and ideas that were prevalent in the '30s.
KING: Taika Waititi directs and plays Adolf Hitler in the new movie "Jojo Rabbit." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.