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SYFY WIRE Fantastic Fest

Jojo Rabbit broke and healed Fantastic Fest’s collective heart

By Christian Long
Jojo Rabbit

After premiering at TIFF, and walking away with its top prize earlier this week, Jojo Rabbit opened up the 15th annual Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, tonight, with writer/director/star Taika Waititi along for the fun.

The filmmaker's latest is a World War II-era fantasy centering on 10-year-old Jojo Betzler, played by Roman Griffin Davis. Caught in the xenophobic fury of the Third Reich, Jojo's so fiercely loyal to Hitler that the Führer himself, played by Waititi, has manifested himself as his imaginary friend. As the aspiring Browncoat tries to work his way into the good graces of the German army, Jojo's forced to confront what it truly means to be a Nazi, as well as his own budding sense of humanity.

The result is a mixture of scathing satire, heart-tugging drama, and just a little bit of what Mel Brooks' imaginary musical, Springtime for Hitler, might have looked like had it ever been made. Which includes Waititi adding an element of slapstick to his portrayal of the man who's become the modern face of evil.

"He's conjured from the mind of a 10-year-old who knows nothing about the world, I wanted that," Waititi told the post-screening crowd, which included SYFY WIRE. "He had to know nothing, be an idiot — more of an idiot than he was — and I wanted to have that 10-year-old quality."

It was, essentially, a more elaborate explanation about his approach to playing Hitler than he offered on Twitter back in May.

The Thor: Ragnarok director, who was just a bit rambunctious during the Q&A, also said he had what he considered "an infatuation" with the story, which is based on Christine Leunens' 2004 novel Caging Skies. While watching some of cinema's most noteworthy anti-war sentiments for research, he realized that "the style of telling these stories didn't vary that much," which inspired him to push the boundaries of what kind of film he could make.

"I didn't think it'd be very good as a straight drama," Waititi admitted. "And I wouldn't want to do it as a straight comedy, because that's inappropriate. So I feel like, in telling these stories again and again, because we have to — and it seems kind of weird that we are forgetting, so it's important that we keep telling these stories, again and again, but re-tell [them] in interesting new ways."

"And I object to the idea of it being 'It's a comedy during World War II.' It's not. It's a story about World War II with some jokes."

As one might expect from such an irreverent mix of whimsical comedy and sobering reality, Jojo Rabbit managed to elicit both side-aching guffaws and whisper-quiet moments of awe. 

Along with Davis and Waititi, Jojo Rabbit also stars Scarlett Johannson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, and Game of Thrones' Alfie Allen. It's slated to open in theaters everywhere on Oct. 18. Bring some tissues.