Taika Waititi on Satirizing Hitler in 'Jojo Rabbit': "Comedy Is a Very Important Weapon Against Bigotry"

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Taika Waititi

"I wanted to tell a story about kids witnessing the behavior of grownups, especially during times of conflict and war, because I've never seen films like that," the writer, director and star told The Hollywood Reporter at the Los Angeles premiere.

World War II films may not be new territory in Hollywood, but Taika Waititi is looking to do things differently with his Nazi-based satire Jojo Rabbit. The film follows a young boy (played by Roman Griffin Davis) in Hitler's army who frequently consults his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi) as he discovers his mother is secretly housing a young Jewish girl.

"I wanted to tell a story about kids witnessing the behavior of grown-ups — especially during times of conflict and war — because I've never seen films like that, I've never seen films where it was told really through a child's lens," the writer, director and star told The Hollywood Reporter at the Los Angeles premiere on Tuesday. "It became particularly important to me after becoming a father and realizing that children are constantly watching us, they're always looking to us for advice and for wisdom and for life lessons, and sometimes we fail them, but when we really fail them is in times of war. War is such a stupid thing and it makes no sense, and when children see us behaving this way, it only perpetuates the behavior."

Waititi also revealed that part of his inspiration to make Jojo Rabbit came from reading a statistic that 41 percent of Americans and 66 percent of American millennials didn't know about and had never heard of Auschwitz. "That really struck me because I felt like at the end of the war they said, 'We should never let this happen again, we'll never forget,' and it's 2019 and kind of feels like we're starting to forget," said the filmmaker, adding that he hopes his movie will continue the conversation and keep memories of those lost in the Holocaust alive. 

Of his decision to take a spoof approach to such a dark time in history, Waititi said, "The only real way to fight bullies is with humor. Comedy is very, very important weapon against bigotry and hate and intolerance, and we have to continue to use it because it's a great way of disarming bullies and poking enough holes in their belief system."

Eleven-year-old Griffin Davis makes his acting debut in Jojo Rabbit, starring as the conflicted Jojo Betzler, who is torn between his Nazi training and his family's views. The young actors said he was drawn to the story because "it was risky and has a strong message and it's kind of relevant today. I think it's interesting to show children in the war and it shows how easy it is to change or manipulate children's minds."

Thomasin McKenzie, who plays Elsa Korr, the Jewish teen that Jojo's mother is hiding, added that Waititi led the cast in mastering the pic's carefully balanced tone between serious content and satire, and noted how "it's been 80 years since The Great Dictator with Charlie Chaplin, so I don't think it's too soon or inappropriate." 

Jojo Rabbit, which also stars Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant and Archie Yates, is far from the first film to satirize Hitler and the Nazis as it joins the ranks of pics from Chaplin, Mel Brooks and Quentin Tarantino. Recalling when he read the script for the first time, Merchant said he recognized it as a brave movie for Hollywood to make, but one that fits into the tradition of World War II satires. 

"There was even a division at BBC of German expats during the war who were writing comedy sketches, broadcasting them into Germany to try to undermine Hitler — it's a long tradition," said the actor. "It's as relevant now as it ever was, unfortunately — there's still a lot of far-right nationalism, and humor is a great way of undermining it. If there's one thing that people who aspire to be dictators hate, it's being made fun of — and all the more reason to do it." 

The L.A premiere, which was held at Hollywood American Legion Post 43, also welcomed a starry array of guests, including Aubrey Plaza, Minnie Driver, Luke Hemsworth, Patton Oswalt, Lisa Edelstein and Peter Facinelli.

Fox Searchlight's Jojo Rabbit is set to hit theaters Friday.