February 27, 2020

The Rise of Taika Waititi and ‘Jojo Rabbit’

Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, and Writer/Director Taika Waititi on the set of WW2 satire, "Jojo Rabbit." Photo by Kimberley French. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Since its world premiere at the 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival last Sept. 8, “Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi’s Nazi satire, consistently has made its mark on Hollywood and the Jewish community during a competitive film year. Its final stop on the awards circuit will be at the 92nd Academy Awards. 

Overall, the film has scored 134 various award nominations with 24 wins. “Jojo” is nominated for six Oscars: motion picture, lead actress, adapted screenplay, costume design, production design and film editing.

There are many reasons the film stands out compared to other Holocaust/World War II narratives. Waititi, a Maori Jew, told the Journal in September that he wanted to share a perspective that hadn’t been seen before. He said he felt putting the lens and pathos of the story through a child’s eyes enabled audiences to empathize in ways they may not be able to through an adult.

Many fans also took notice of the film’s costume and production design. The vibrant colors are a stark juxtaposition from Holocaust narratives. Waititi said that’s
the point.

“That’s all authentic in keeping with how people dressed,” he said. “I think people are too used to the normal palette of these films, which are browns and grays, very muted and desaturated palettes. I know why they do it, which is to highlight just how grim the situation was. I just felt like I’d seen that so many times before, and I wanted to show a different side to this.”

He added that it enabled him to see how vibrant Germany was during WWII. 

“Even the inks and dyes are very different than now,” Waititi explained. “I wanted to show that. There’s something really cool seeing the festive frenzy Germany was in at the time where they would spend all their money on extravagance and the very best things and the most modern art. Meanwhile, everything is deteriorating from within, and I think it is interesting to see by the end of the film, everything is in ruins.”

“I think about the children and all of those conflicts, and [children] don’t really know why people are fighting. 

We should be mentoring them and being those beacons of hope.” — Taika Waititi

Hilary Helstein, executive director of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, which is presented by the Journal, screened “Jojo Rabbit” last fall. She told the Journal it drew a slew of people, from ages 20 to 80. 

“It’s a terrific way to engage younger people in seeing [‘Jojo’] and other people aside from the traditional film [audience] a ‘Holocaust’ film would draw,” Helstein said. “It’s a fresh approach regardless of how the book was written. The way that Taika Waititi wrote it and directed it is absolutely a fresh and unique approach to the subject matter that I have seen in many years.”

Waititi told the Journal he wrote the story in 2011, not thinking it would
become hyper-relevant today. “I tried to see how many conflicts there had been since World War II, after they said, ‘Well, we should never fight again. Let’s never forget what happened.’ I gave up because s— happened since then,” he said. “I think about the children and all of those
conflicts, and [children] don’t really know why people are fighting. We should be mentoring them and being those beacons of hope. How are they supposed to
grow up having tolerance or hope in humanity if this is the chaos they see?”

The USC Shoah Foundation took notice of the film’s impact and teamed up with Fox Searchlight Pictures on Dec. 19 to develop a classroom curriculum around the film. The Foundation said in a statement, “ ‘Jojo Rabbit’ demonstrates how individuals can overcome ingrained prejudices and hate — components USC Shoah Foundation, with a deep history of Holocaust scholarship and developing transformative learning tools, will deploy during the partnership.”

The new education initiative brought together the powerful anti-hate message of the film with Holocaust survivor testimony from the Institute’s Visual History Archive via several resources for educators, classroom-ready activities incorporating clips from the film, and a dedicated landing page on the Institute’s IWitness website. The resources aim to help students understand the peril of prejudice, anti-Semitism and bigotry as well as the power of individual agency and resilience.

According to the Shoah Foundation, a dedicated page for the partnership has been created, to which more than 175,000 users worldwide will have access in all 50 states and 89 countries.

Stephen D. Smith, USC Shoah Foundation and UNESCO chair on genocide education, said Jojo’s journey is one many,
especially children, can identify with, making the movie a great educational source. “We give students the opportunity to explore their own attitudes and learn how to question hate, just as the young boy Jojo ultimately does,” Smith said. “The film depicts how easily hate can find a home in the very young, which is still true today and the reason behind our urgent work to develop empathy, understanding and respect.”

Not everyone loved the film. Many criticized “Jojo” for joking about Nazis during a period in U.S. history when synagogue shootings are taking place and Orthodox people are attacked for dressing in “Jewish garb.” Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker that the film was “a failure” — or at least one “Bialystock and Bloom, in ‘The Producers,’ would have made when they got out of prison and went legit.”

Still, Hollywood celebrities including Norman Lear, Patton Oswalt, Ava DuVernay, Russell Crowe and Jon Favreau praised the film. The Jewish king of comedy and satire, Mel Brooks, praised Waititi’s work on the film during the 2020 American Film Institute (AFI) Awards.

“I want to say, I just saw ‘Jojo Rabbit,’ and it’s really a terrific and eloquent and beautiful picture,” Brooks said at the event in Beverly Hills. “Taika, you did a great job. Even as an actor, you were good, which is hard.”

Whether you agree with the criticisms or loved every moment of the satirical romp with heart, Waititi said the weight of the world ultimately will fall on the next generation if it is not dealt with now, so something should be done about it for the sake of the children.

“I couldn’t predict that it would be more relevant now,” Waititi said. “I like how we need to better serve children and guide them to a better future.”