Taika Waititi can’t stop talking about his pants. It is two days after the world premiere of Waititi’s “anti-hate satire” Jojo Rabbit at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the New Zealand filmmaker is undergoing the obligatory ritual of meeting, greeting, and dismissing journalists inside a well-appointed downtown hotel suite. But before any interview takes place, he needs to adjust his trousers. Immediately.
“One pant leg is longer than the other, isn’t it?” he asks, just as I enter the room. Or maybe his question is directed to the two public-relations representatives sitting nearby. Or maybe no one at all. I suggest that perhaps the sartorial dilemma rests with the way his pants are sitting on his hips. He shoots a cocked-eyebrow glare which indicates that I have said either the weirdest or the stupidest thing to ever be uttered about such a piece of clothing. Whatever the case, the pant-leg shtick acts as a tidy introduction to the many sides of Taika Waititi: style icon, jester, self-knowing eccentric.
But even the most carefully tailored pair of pants won’t help Waititi escape the fall movie season without personal discomfort. Such is the case when you write and direct a comedy such as Jojo Rabbit, which follows a young Second World War-era German boy and his imaginary friend who just happens to be Adolf Hitler. Doubly so when you decide to play the Fuehrer himself, as Waititi does here.
And while Jojo Rabbit ended up leaving TIFF as a potential Oscars contender, winning over a swath of critics and the festival’s coveted People’s Choice Award, its theatrical release this weekend should ignite the hot-take discourse cycle all over again.
Here, the increasingly busy Waititi, who’s about to start shooting the soccer comedy Next Goal Wins before heading back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Thor: Love and Thunder, talks with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about expectations, history and what is and isn’t satire.
How nervous were you in bringing Jojo to TIFF for its world premiere? It’s a subject that not everyone is obviously comfortable with…
Without sounding arrogant, I don’t get nervous any more. And I’m starting to get worried about that. What makes me feel good about what I’m working on is when I start getting nervous and anxious of how it’ll be taken. But this is my sixth film, and I feel now that I know my sensibilities, my tone. And I know how much work I’ve put into it. I’ve worked on this film since 2011, and for me, it didn’t feel like I was taking a massive risk by presenting this story. This is by no means the first satire or the first film to lambaste Hitler and the Nazis. It would be different if this was from the other point of view, of me trying to say, “You guys, let’s take into consideration what was going on with the Nazis, okay?” If I was doing that, yeah, I’d be nervous. But this is me continuing the conversation that’s been going on since 1930.
You’re confident in your sensibilities, but are you confident in the audiences’ awareness of those sensibilities? As in, everyone knows what to expect from a Taika Waititi film now?
No, but that’s not my job. I used to be a painter, and what drove me away from that was this ridiculous concept of people having to read a five-page dissertation on what a painting is about without just letting an audience see a painting and judge it, and let the art speak for itself. That’s what I hope my films do. I don’t want to tell an audience beforehand that this is what you can expect. That sounds apologetic. For me, you’ve either seen my films and understand that they’re all the same, tone-wise – and that they deal with the same things, which is family and love and that they have an uplifting side to them and messages of hope. Or you haven’t. In which case: buy the box set.
You spent your 20s in Berlin. How do you think this film would be received [there] today?
If anyone knows how to acknowledge what’s happened, it’s the Germans. They have put a lot of effort in continuing the conversation. Every child is reminded and educated on what happened, probably to the point where a lot of kids grow up having this guilt or shame for something that happened 80 years ago. But it’s vital that they learn, and that’s what this film is about: continuing to educate people, and ensuring it never happens again.
So you’re satirizing or making Hitler a buffoon here, which is not a new idea, it’s been done since the forties. Why do you think audiences need a new interpretation of that?
It’s not enough to say Hitler was an idiot or a buffoon, because I don’t think that’s as effective as showing him as a buffoon. That’s why we have caricature. And even though he’s dead, if you can show that face and show that ridiculous outfit and moustache, it’s the same effect as showing how ridiculous [Donald] Trump is. It’s not enough to say, “I don’t like this particular person or his ideas.” The way comedy works is, to satirize, you have to show them or a version of them. And with, in this movie, with Jojo not having a father and him trying to find a father figure and mixing him with his idol, Hitler, that felt like a new and inventive way of telling a story. So we have it from that kid’s point of view. Without an imaginary Hitler, it wouldn’t be quite the same.
The marketing for this film is that it’s an “anti-hate satire.” But I’m curious where you see the line between comedy and satire. What do you feel you’re satirizing here?
I think there’s a long tradition of satirizing anything – the establishment, we’ll call it – and comedy has been the biggest tool for that. The only real way to attack ideas and attack regimes is when you’re making of fun of people, mimicking them or satirizing them. For some reason that’s the thing that drives people the craziest: being made fun of. That’s why Trump gets so out of control and spends all day on Twitter responding to people who troll him. His confidence is that messed up that he feels that instead of running the country, he has to respond to people who make fun of him on social media.
But I’m wondering, in my idea of satire, there’s an aspect of pointing the finger back at the audience. Of directly implying that they should wake up a bit. Do you see that here?
I think you get the idea that it’s our responsibility to … I keep saying this, but to continue the conversation. It’s our responsibility to educate not only ourselves but also new generations. There’s a kind of laziness that opens the doors to breed these hate crimes and atrocities and eventually wars. It wigs me out that, recently, they did a poll and something like 44 per cent of American millennials didn’t know what Auschwitz was. That is not good enough.
You’re talking about showing the Nazis as fools and horrible people, but I want to ask about Sam Rockwell’s character, a Nazi who turns out to be something of a good person. Were you concerned about showing that both sides…
“Some very fine people on both sides”? Yeah, no, but there were. There were career soldiers who fought for Germany who weren’t Nazis. They were patriots and should’ve known better than to be supporting that regime, but as we know from the stories like the Valkyrie Operation that there were people who knew what he was doing were wrong and were trying to get rid of him. There were Germans helping Jews escape. I don’t think that in any country in the world, 100 per cent of the people are evil, as we know. So I think that Sam’s character does have that complexity.
This interview has been condensed and edited
Jojo Rabbit opens Oct. 25 in Toronto before expanding to other Canadian cities Nov. 1
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.