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Even if Taika Waititi seemed to have earned the benefit of the doubt after films such as Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and What We Do in the Shadows, it's not hard to understand why some might still be skeptical about Jojo Rabbit, a comedic farce about a 10-year-old boy (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis) growing up in Nazi Germany who's got Hitler for an imaginary friend. To top it off, the führer is played by the Jewish-Maori filmmaker himself. If you're one of the skeptics, just know that even Waititi wasn't so sure at first.
"I felt weird about it," Waititi recently said about tackling the role for his new movie. And, during the Q&A following the movie's world premiere Sunday night before a packed house at the Toronto International Film Festival, the writer/director admitted he had "a little bit" of fear.
The film was, understandably, a tough sell for distributors too — even on the heels of the smash success of Ragnarok. Fox Searchlight was the only studio willing to touch the project, the Kiwi filmmaker told the assembled crowd. (Although one could argue that making Thor fun again after Thor: The Dark World might have seemed like an equally daunting task as making a comedy about Nazis in 2019.) Which is presumably why all the marketing material, from trailers to movie posters, makes it abundantly clear Jojo Rabbit is an "anti-hate satire."
"You'll get it. It's pretty simple," Waititi promised the crowd when he introduced the movie. And judging by the pair of standing ovations the film received after the credits rolled, he was right. (At TIFF, the first standing ovation is pretty much a given. A second is far rarer.)
The experience feels a bit like watching someone driving an 18-wheeler blindfolded. It seems like a spectacularly bad, even dangerous, idea. And yet Waititi somehow seems in complete control the entire time. It all just ... works.
According to the writer/director, the idea for Jojo Rabbit came from his mom, when she read the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens and relayed the plot (poorly) to her son. "The way she described it, I said, 'Mom, what a great film idea.' And then I read the book, and the book — it is incredible, but it wasn't exactly how my mom described," he said with a laugh. "So when I tried writing [it], I started tapping more into the way she explained this book — which was all wrong ... I don't know if she actually read it."
That meant adding a healthy dose of Waititi's signature sense of humor, including young Jojo's imaginary friend/führer. Case in point: The opening credits feature newsreel clips of rapturous German crowds over the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand," reframing Nazism as a kind of horrifyingly twisted Beatlemania. But there's more to Jojo Rabbit than just that sort of broad satire.
"The film is more of a love letter to mothers, especially single mothers. I grew up with a single mom," Waititi explained. "So, for me, growing up, I always fantasized about father figures and wanting that presence in my life. And I think it's no different for a boy growing up with a single mother in Nazi Germany. It's like, 'I want dad and also my idol is this buffoon, so I'll mix the two.'" And, make no mistake, Waititi leans heavily into the buffoon part.
As for how the rest of the cast approached their roles, Sam Rockwell, who plays the leader of the Hitler Youth group that Jojo joins, had a very specific inspiration in mind: "I just thought 'If Bill Murray was a disillusioned Nazi.' That's how I was going to play it, and I think Taika liked that idea."
"Yeah, I did. But sadly, he was unavailable," Waititi joked.
For Stephen Merchant, who cameos as a menacing Gestapo officer, the choice was even more obvious: "I don't think it's going to come as a shock to anyone that I obviously had watched Raiders of the Lost Ark just before this. It's one of the great Ronald Lacey performances, the Nazi Gestapo officer, but what struck me about that, even as a kid, he could seem comic — but later he's very scary. And genuinely terrifying," Merchant explained. "That seemed like a great guide."
Thomasin McKenzie, who plays Elsa, the young Jewish girl being hidden in the family's house — to the great disappointment of both young Jojo and his imaginary Hitler — told the Toronto crowd she tried to be slightly more academic in her preparation. "It was very nerve-wracking taking on this role, and I wanted first and foremost to approach it with a lot of sensitivity, and to go into it having put as much research and thought into as possible."
"However, the first time I actually met Taika in person and sat down with him, he was like, 'Forget all that, watch Heathers and Mean Girls,'" she said, laughing. "The point was, she had a life before this disgusting tragedy happened to her."
"I thought she would've had a life in high school, she was cool," the filmmaker explained. "And now …"
For Waititi, who first started working on Jojo Rabbit in 2011, there's a clear value in telling this tale of Nazi Germany and a young boy's indoctrination in 2019 — even if, yes, some might be skeptical at first. "I think it's very important to keep telling these stories again and again. They didn't say 'Never forget' as a joke," said Waititi. "So we have to keep remembering and finding new and inventive ways of telling the same story and teaching ourselves and our children lessons for how to grow and how to move forward unified, with love, into the future."
Like Waititi said, just watch it and you'll get it. It's pretty simple.