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Jojo Rabbit star Taika Waititi on the power of comedy in tackling hate

Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi pokes fun at Nazis with his new satire Jojo Rabbit. He talks to Laura Harding about the power of comedy in tackling hate

Dark comedy: Taiki Waititi as Adolf Hitler and Roman Griffin Davis (right) as Jojo Betzler
Dark comedy: Taiki Waititi as Adolf Hitler and Roman Griffin Davis (right) as Jojo Betzler

How do you find the light in one of the darkest times in world history? That is the challenge facing writer, director and actor Taika Waititi with his new satire Jojo Rabbit, about a 10-year-old member of the Hitler Youth who is imaginary friends with the Fuhrer.

The little boy, played by British rising star Roman Griffin Davis, is horrified when he discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic.

"It turns out the Second World War is not necessarily the most comedic of times," Waititi (44) says drily from his armchair in a London hotel room.

"But I don't think I made the war funny. There are some characters in there who are funny.

"It was important to me to bring humour to a story that has a deeper message, I don't think I'm really capable of doing a gritty drama."

That is easy to believe if you know the New Zealand filmmaker's other work, such as Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok, vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows and cult comedy Flight Of The Conchords.

"That is not really my style," he adds. "That is not what I'm known for and it's not really anything I'm interested in.

"So I just brought my style of story-telling to this film and I think what is great is it's following in a long tradition of satires and people using humour to fight hate and to fight racism, so I feel like I'm in good company."

Indeed, he follows in the footsteps of comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks, who have poked fun at dictators, and Waititi takes on the role of Hitler himself.

"I'm not the logical choice to play Hitler," he concedes. "It's not like I was deciding 'Oh jeez, which movie should I choose to play Hitler in?'

"It's something that actually developed over the years. I wrote the script in 2011 and then I went and made three other films and by the time I came back to it about six or seven years later, Fox Searchlight (the studio behind the film) had found the script and wanted to make it.

"They were the ones who encouraged me to play the role, because I knew the character and what I wanted from the character, and I knew the way I wanted him to sound. So, in a way it kind of made it easier for me - I didn't have to worry about another actor trying to find that character."

Waititi first got the idea for the film back in 2010 when he read Christine Leunens's book Caging Skies.

"I read it and found that there was lots of stuff in there that felt very cinematic and that there was a good story in there about a boy who was indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth and then discovers that his mother is hiding this girl in their attic, and that was all I needed to go off and write the screenplay," he says enthusiastically.

Little could he imagine back then how timely the film would feel on its release.

"When I wrote the script in 2011 hate speech was definitely a thing, but nowhere near on the scale we are seeing today.

Taiki Waititi
Taiki Waititi

"I guess, sadly, the film is more relevant than ever and what is good, I guess, is it's more important now that this film is out there and it's more important that people see it."

He is convinced in the power of satire, as seen in Chaplin's The Dictator and Brooks' The Producers, as a tool against hate and the film utilises the kind of goofy humour that has made Waititi famous.

"Most dictators and figures of hate and bullies are quite narcissistic and I think when you poke fun at them they can't take it, they can't stand it," he says.

"Which is why the president of the United States will take time away from running the country to tweet to celebrities who hassle him on Twitter, he just can't handle the idea of being laughed at."

But he's also aware that the tone of the film has to be carefully crafted, one wrong move and his tenderly drawn picture starts to look tasteless.

"I guess with every film you have got that nervousness that people might not get it," he admits, "or that it might not be received as well as you hope.

"But I like to think I've still got a good grasp on my film-making and know how to make a good film in my style.

"I test the films a lot before I release them and I watch them a lot, and I watched the film and I thought, 'okay, this film is pretty good', and so it passed my test."

So far it seems others agree. The film has already won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival, previously bagged by Oscar-winning Green Book, and picked up Golden Globes nods for young star Davis and for best picture in the comedy and musical category.

That kind of reception must feel gratifying?

"It feels great, it's really nice to have this.

"It's always nice to have attention because as a filmmaker we just want people to like us, so I feel liked this month."

Jojo Rabbit is in cinemas now

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