In Jojo Rabbit, director, screenwriter and co-star Taika Waititi uses laughter and poignancy in a story that at first glance might not seem the right venue for either. Based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, the film tells the story of 10-year-old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a little boy living in a small German town during World War II who wants nothing more than to join the Hitler Youth — egged on by his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Waititi). But when Jojo discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a teenage Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house, Jojo’s view of the world begins to change even as his life becomes increasingly dangerous.
For Waititi, the story has personal resonance: growing up as half Maori on his father’s side and partially Jewish on his mother’s side, he was part of two proud and often marginalized cultures. “Growing up, I had this strong sense of coming from two cultures that were resilient and survivors,” he recalls. “And also both sides had a very, very great, sharp sense of humor. So for me, making something like this does draw on both of those backgrounds.”
It’s his own iconoclastic sense of humor — a mix of the absurd and the farcical — that has distinguished Waititi’s previous films like What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok (he’s just beginning work, by the way, on Thor: Love and Thunder). Waititi dismisses the notion advanced by some that a comedy set in Nazi Germany is inappropriate or even distasteful. “It’s 80 years ago that Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator,” he says. “So I’m not sure that it’s too soon. It’s not soon enough.”
Jojo Rabbit does in fact join a great tradition of films aimed at taking down the Third Reich with laughter, such as the aforementioned Chaplin masterpiece or even Mel Brooks’ The Producers. “I feel like comedy is a very, very important weapon against bigotry and fascism and intolerance, and it always has been,” he maintains. “It’s not like a new idea to use comedy to poke fun at these regimes or to pull the thread on the fabric that they think is so important but is just made up of these really messed up ideas.”
In fact, the passionate empathy and humanism that lies at the center of Waititi’s earlier work is very much a part of Jojo Rabbit, as Jojo begins to realize the monstrosity of the Nazi ideology and open his heart to another human being he once demonized — a theme that is just as relevant right now, in today’s fracturing world, as it might have been 80 years ago.
“Comedy is actually one of the greatest ways of delivering important messages,” Waititi explains. “I think the reason is, when you’re laughing, you’re more receptive. You become more open and you’re more aware and you’re listening more. You want more laughs.” He continues, “And then if you mix it with drama and an actual message or something more poignant, you open them up and you deliver that and for me that feels like a more effective way of giving an audience a deeper emotional experience.”
In other words, don’t be surprised if you start off watching Jojo Rabbit by laughing at Jojo’s antics, feeling repulsed at the imbecilic Nazis…and then shedding some tears as the story reaches its bittersweet conclusion.
Jojo Rabbit is in theaters now.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye