The title character is a 10-year-old boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who, having failed to star as he had hoped at the draconian Hitler Youth weekend camp, becomes a volunteer for the haphazard propaganda operation run by the local commandant, a disintegrating alcoholic with cross-dressing tendencies (Sam Rockwell).
What they don’t know is that the war will end in six months. Germany is steadily losing ground, but Jojo and his friends believe a different story; despite the limp he acquired at camp, Jojo remains a pumped-up little patriot in his miniature Brownshirt uniform.
He’s so patriotic, in fact, that he conjures an unusual imaginary friend: the Fuehrer himself or, at least, a gambolling, naughty version of the Fuehrer, something a 10-year-old who is missing his dad might concoct as a playmate. Jojo’s father is away at the war, possibly on the wrong side; his older sister has died; and he is alone with his beautiful, theatrical mother (Scarlett Johansson), when she is not out on mysterious errands he never thinks to question.
His world is turned upside down, however, when he discovers a teenage girl (Thomasin McKenzie) living secretly in the loft of their townhouse. She is, of course, Jewish. Ostensibly, the little Fascist has an enemy captive, a ready-made opportunity to make his name with the party.
But what to do? His own mother is harbouring her, she was his sister’s friend and quickly becomes his friend, too. Jojo begins to realise he may not be such a good Nazi after all, much to the chagrin of his invisible companion with the smudgy moustache – who is played, with hilarious, camped-up extravagance, by Waititi himself.
Waititi’s career is one of the most encouraging success stories in cinema; evidence you can come from the wrong bit of the planet, making eccentric films unlike anyone else’s, to find an enthusiastic audience that has apparently been waiting for you. He came to international notice with Boy (2010), a coming-of-age story of exceptional sensitivity set in New Zealand’s East Cape in which he played the titular boy’s criminal father. What We Do in the Shadows (2014) was a total original: an account of a group of vampires living in a share house in Wellington, arguing over housework and going out after dark to some of the capital’s most dismal bars. Waititi played an 18th-century fop with a frock-coat and fangs; the oldest vampire, being thousands of years old, spends most of his time in a coffin. It was an instant cult film.
Next came Hunt for the Wilderpeople, with Sam Neill as a grumpy South Island farmer fostering a fat Maori delinquent sent down from the city. It was a heart-warmer, but leavened with quirky detail. Waititi has a remarkable ability to direct children, as shown again in Jojo Rabbit. Thor: Ragnarok made over the superhero’s franchise to the extent even people who were not fans of interplanetary hammer-throwers could at least laugh along with Waititi’s character, a space creature that is actually a pile of rocks.
“It’s hard not to be laughing when Taika’s around,” McKenzie says. Griffin Davis agrees, but adds Waititi ticked him off when they started filming. “I was the most annoying child because I asked him so many questions to the point where he just said can you stop asking questions?’ Like I was giving him a headache.”
Waititi has a Maori father and a Jewish mother. Not much of a pure Aryan, then, playing Hitler. It is a good joke, but not one he originally intended. He wrote the script in 2011. At the time, he says, he had a lot of interest in the role from A-list actors. It didn’t occur to him to play the part himself. “Because – well, look at me!” he says. “I’m not white! So that was never the idea.”
Six years on, however, Fox Searchlight committed to making the film and wanted Waititi as the imaginary dictator. “They made a good point – and I think maybe that was what sparked my own reticence at the beginning – that if you have an A-lister playing this part, it becomes their movie instead of a film about these kids who are trying to overcome these messed-up ideas and find tolerance and acceptance, which also happens to have this imaginary character in it.”
We meet at the London Film Festival. The anxiety over a Hitler film has dissipated; the film will go on to be nominated for two Golden Globes, along with many other awards. “Well, what am I making fun of? That’s the question, I guess,” Waititi says. “I’m making fun of Nazis. And I will definitely make fun of racists and bullies and people who are spreading intolerance and hate. There are a lot of lines I wouldn’t cross because it’s not my style. If you’ve seen my films, they’re not very shocking.
“I’m not out to be the bad boy of cinema or anything. I’m from New Zealand! We’re too polite. We don’t do that. We try to be nice – but also try to deliver a message that doesn’t anger people who don’t need to be angered. I’m not going to push the anti-Semitic jokes too far, for example. I’m not going to give any ammunition to the people who actually think like that.”
He did want to put a fire under our collective memory, however. “I wanted to make it a contemporary story, but set in a time a lot of people feel we have talked about enough. There are definitely people out there who think, ‘Hey, we’ve talked about World War II enough, we get the message!’”
When there are Nazis holding rallies in American cities and claiming the right of free speech, it is clear too much has been forgotten. “You probably know about The Guardian releasing the results of a survey last year where they discovered that 41 per cent of Americans and 66 per cent of American Millennials have never heard of Auschwitz. So we haven’t talked about it enough, but we have to find new ways of talking about it.”
Of course, humour has always been a frontline weapon against tyrants. “Because they can’t handle it. They just hate it,” he says. “You can see that with Trump. He cannot stand being laughed at. That is really one of his biggest weaknesses. And he will stop running the country and take time out to go on Twitter and pick on comedians just because they have made fun of him. So it feels very much that comedy is a very powerful tool in this discussion.”
He is in particularly good company satirising Hitler: Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be and Mel Brooks’ The Producers all set out to cut Hitler down to size using ridicule. He remembers liking Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, set in a concentration camp, which won an Oscar but was also criticised for glossing over the reality of the Holocaust.
“I thought the movie was very smart,” Waititi says. “He approached it from his background. I don’t think you go and see a Benigni movie and not expect to see a clown. There is another great example of continuing the conversation but in a way that nobody expected.”
Not that Waititi consulted those films for inspiration. “I knew very clearly what I wanted to do, I felt if I had to watch all of those things it was like me asking permission and I don’t need permission to do this.”
Nor did he look at footage of Hitler to research his character. “I think it’s pretty obvious I didn’t make any effort if you’ve watched any of that footage of him. His physicality, the way he talks are completely different. Why would I give him the satisfaction of trying to do an honest depiction of him? Anyway, I’m not playing Hitler. I’m playing Jojo.
“This version of Hitler can only know what a 10-year-old knows because he comes from a 10-year-old’s brain so he could never be a real Hitler. Again, who wants to go method to really embody that character? Bruno Ganz did it in Downfall. Great. Nobody needs to do it again.”
Everybody just needs to remember, whatever it takes to make that happen.
Jojo Rabbit opens on December 26.
Stephanie Bunbury is a film and culture writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.