Springtime for Taika Cohen and ‘Jojo Rabbit’

Not only is it all right to ridicule Nazis, but making fun of them can have a positive impact.

Adolf Hitler will be a prominent character in Jojo Rabbit, a satirical movie by Taika Waititi (photo credit: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT)
Adolf Hitler will be a prominent character in Jojo Rabbit, a satirical movie by Taika Waititi
(photo credit: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT)
“At the end of the day, I do enjoy seeing Nazis losing wars,” said Taika Waititi in a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post about his new comedy, Jojo Rabbit, the story of a boy in Nazi Germany whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, which opens throughout Israel on January 3.
The director, who is known professionally as Taika Waititi but whose legal name is Taika Cohen – his mother is Jewish and his father is Maori – appears in the film as Hitler himself, whom he plays as a smug buffoon. He has directed movies both in his native New Zealand and big-budget Hollywood films, including Thor: Ragnarok, and he will be directing the new Thor: Love and Thunder movie with Natalie Portman, but right now he wants to talk about Jojo Rabbit.
He rejects the idea that the fact that he is Jewish made it somehow more acceptable for him to tell this controversial story. “It wouldn’t have made any difference if I was or wasn’t Jewish,” he said.
If people are so upset by the idea of a film that makes fun of Hitler that they want to skip the movie, “I would say, ‘No, you really should see it.’ I can understand that for some people, it’s too close to personal things they have experienced... but for most people, I think you really should see it before judging it. It’s a new way of looking at and talking about [the Nazi era]... don’t judge a book by its cover,” Waititi said.
“It’s not a broad comedy, it combines different genres, it’s really a drama with some jokes. If people aren’t open to movies like that, they’ll just be seeing the same mainstream movies over and over again.”
The movie, which has been a success with audiences, especially younger ones, has divided critics. Owen Gleiberman, writing in Variety, called it a “feel-good hipster Nazi comedy,” while others praised it, including Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent, who said it was “daring, tender and sharp.”
One supporter whose compliment was especially important to the director was Mel Brooks, who called the film “wonderful.” Brooks created the Springtime for Hitler musical as part of The Producers, and remade Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, a movie about Nazi-era Polish actors that involves a Hitler impersonation.
“He really paved the way for somebody like me to do this. When someone like that gives you his approval and says that what you’re doing is worthwhile, it really means something.”
Waititi firmly believes that not only is it all right to ridicule Nazis, but that making fun of them can have a positive impact.
“It helps to take away their power. They operated on the idea of fear... but when you get people to laugh at the small details, you can see how ridiculous and illogical it was, it was built upon all these ideas that didn’t make any sense.”
Referencing Groucho Marx’s famous story about how he wasn’t allowed into a country club that wouldn’t admit Jews, and then asked, “My daughter is only half Jewish, can she go in the pool up to her knees?” Waititi said, “That’s why comedy is so important. Through it, you can communicate with people in a way that drama can’t. You’re laughing at the truth, and the audience lets down their guard... you can convey a more powerful message that way.”
The film tells the story of a 10-year-old German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who wants to fit in with Hitler Youth and asks his imaginary buddy Hitler for help, which gets confusing when he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a teenage Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their apartment.
“Most people wouldn’t want to identify with a German in World War II, but this is a 10-year-old boy’s version of Hitler. He’s a lonely boy, clinging on to anything he can to make his way in the world. There were millions of people in Hitler Youth.... People forget what it’s like to be a kid, that if you’re not part of the group, you’re going to be bullied and ostracized. Very few have the strength to stand up to pressure of being part of the group.”
While Jojo “is clinging on to something he doesn’t understand,” the discovery of the Jewish girl in his apartment, and later, as the Nazis begin to lose control, leads to the “disintegration of everything, of his belief system” and makes him begin to understand the Nazis’ deceit. This is clearly shown in the movie by Hitler gradually falling apart as Jojo’s questions unsettle him, which Waititi depicts through physical comedy as well as dialogue.
So what was it like for a Jew to play Hitler?
“Unsurprisingly, I didn’t enjoy wearing the Hitler costume.... Usually my sets are warm and filled with laughter, but it was all tempered by this costume. It was very uncomfortable. You have to accept that.”
Although he knew Charlie Chaplin’s portrayal of a Hitler-esque tyrant in The Great Dictator and other movie Hitlers, “I didn’t actually watch any films about him. I looked at a few of the rallies, but I’ve seen enough of his work. I didn’t want to do an authentic depiction of him. The Hitler in Jojo can only know as much as a 10-year-old boy’s brain... I wanted it to feel like my own thing.”
Working with his young actors, Waititi trusted that their parents would help them with the delicate task of doing research for their roles. “Just like my mother thought it was important to tell me about the Holocaust, their parents talked to them.”
Although it might be tempting to see the film as a response to the recent rise in antisemitism and such events as the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in which marchers shouted antisemitic slogans, Waititi said that he conceived of the film, an adaptation of a novel by Christine Leunens, all the way back in 2011.
“I just felt that it was a really important film to make,” he said. “I’m proud of it.”