It takes a brave director to make a comedy about a 10-year-old Nazi and his imaginary friend Hitler – and an even bolder one to play the moustache-and-swastika-clad dictator himself.
But Taika Waititi says he was determined to use humour to tackle bigotry and fascism in his Oscar-tipped film Jojo Rabbit, released this week, at a time when there are “many Nazis around”.
“It’s 80 years ago this year that Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator. So I wouldn’t say it’s too soon!” the New Zealander, who is of Jewish and Maori descent, told journalists at a Beverly Hills press conference.
“It’s following in the tradition of some very smart people who had something to say and used comedy – which in my opinion is one of the most powerful tools against bigotry and against regimes and dictators,” said the Thor: Ragnarok director.
The film, starring Scarlett Johansson, portrays World War II through the eyes of a young German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who has been indoctrinated by the Nazi Youth, and is appalled to discover a Jewish girl living in his attic.
Young Jojo, who has never met a Jew before, initially views her with fear and revulsion. But upon learning his mother (Johansson) has secretly taken in the girl at immense risk, he is forced to spend time with her.
Billed as an “anti-hate satire”, the movie has been in the works since 2011, when Waititi’s mother first recommended to him Caging Skies, the novel on which it is based.
Its release comes at a time when despots and far-right populists are on the rise around the world, said Waititi.
“There weren’t as many Nazis around then!” he said, referring to when work on the movie first started.
Now, “It feels strangely relevant, more relevant.”
“Cut to 2019, this film is coming out, there’s the rise of more neo-Nazis and hate groups and intolerance and hate is on the rise, and people who promote hate and intolerance,” Waititi said.
It has resonated with audiences, and the film could yet emulate 1997’s La vita e bella (Life Is Beautiful), another polarising Nazi-themed film which bagged three Academy Awards.
While Jojo Rabbit received lukewarm reviews, it dramatically entered Oscars contention last month when it won the Toronto film festival’s top prize.
The audience-selected award has proven a reliable bellwether for several recent best picture Oscar winners including Green Book, The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire.
Festival-goers shrugged off critics’ concerns over the film’s cartoonish, “hipster” aesthetic, and Waititi’s controversial on-screen portrayal of a childish, idiotic Hitler – a figment of the young boy’s brainwashed imagination.
Waititi said he did not originally want to play the Hitler character – who badgers Jojo to turn on the Jewish girl – but did so on the request of Fox Searchlight, the studio which bought the film.
“Playing that role, the main word to describe it is embarrassing,” said Waititi. “I was embarrassed most of the time, to have to dress like that.”
But the decision paid off, said Waititi, as having a known Hollywood screen star in the role would have diverted attention from the film’s true concern – the impact of war and fascism on innocent young minds.
Johansson – the world’s top-paid actress – instead came on board as Jojo’s goofy but idealistic mother. Her interest was piqued after her fellow Marvel superhero star Chris Hemsworth showed her Waititi’s script.
“It was full of whimsy and it was childlike but it was also really poignant and strong and had a vulnerability to it,” said Johansson.
Stephen Merchant, the co-creator of The Office who plays a sinister Gestapo captain, said he felt it was “audacious” to make the movie at a time when “mainstream cinema has got perhaps a little bit more conservative or less risk taking . . . That’s to be applauded.”
Jojo Rabbit hits North American theatres on Friday.