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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Takia Waititi Plays Hitler In 'Jojo Rabbit'

Speaker 1: 00:00 Director, tequila T T's new film. Jojo rabbit is being billed as an anti hate satire. The film is based on the 2004 novel by Christine Noonans and follows a young boy in Nazi Germany who idolizes adult Fiddler and makes Hitler his imaginary friend, actor Stephen merchant, one of the creative forces behind the British sitcom the office plays a Nazi officer in the film. He recently spoke with KPBS arts reporter Beth HOK Amando for her cinema junky podcast about finding humor in difficult subjects. Here's an excerpt of that interview Speaker 2: 00:39 to begin with. Stephen, this film is not a film that fits neatly into a box, which is one of the things I love about it. If you were trying to get somebody to come to see your film and they were a little bit like, I'm not sure what it is, what would you tell them? Speaker 3: 00:52 Well, firstly I would, I would tell them that for me it fits into a, a tradition of movies that I've always really loved, which use humor to deal with, with big or difficult subjects. It puts me in mind to films. I booked her strange love, you know, there's no more Bleeker subject than you can, or apocalypse, but dealt with such irreverence and humor that obviously famously became a classic. I think Monte Python's life of Brian did something similar with religion and in this case we're dealing with Hitler. We're dealing with prejudice, uh, and the way that sort of, I suppose people can become and get swept up in a particular ideology, particularly children. And so in that regard, it fits into an even longer tradition of, of movies that satirized and mocked Hitler right back to the night before is when he was still in power. Speaker 3: 01:40 Obviously a chaplain's, the great dictator of being a kind of prime example, but also earn its Lubitsch did it with, to be or not to be late to Mel Brooks in the 60s. And certainly in the UK where I'm from, there was a long tradition of sort of people mocking Hitler. Even. I remember on talk shows people would come on sort of dressed as heaven and goof around and, and so, um, I suppose for me that's what kind of appeals to me about the film is it's, it's, it's very comic, but I think it deals with big ideas and I think also by the end it's very moving and I think it takes you on an emotional journey, which in, in a, in a climate of movies where there's a lot of, you know, and nothing wrong with it, but a lot of the superhero movies and we make, it's quite brave I think to make a film in which a young boy has hitting her as an imaginary friend. Speaker 2: 02:24 Well, you've written and directed a lot of comedy yourself. And so looking at the film that Tyco YTD has created, what are the, the challenges or how do you actually kind of make it work when you're kind of going from slapstick to pathos? Like sometimes within seconds of each other? Speaker 3: 02:44 Well, I have to say, you know, I've tried to juggle, you know, humor and emotion and pathos in the work I've done. But it wasn't until I sold the finished version of this that I was amazed at sort of how he had managed to pull it off because you know, even in the making of it, I sort of admired Tycho's ambition, but I couldn't quite see how those two things were going to match up. I really was, I was thinking, wow, this is going to be, this is going to be a sort of all day, just roll the dice and, and somehow, you know, in seeing the finished film, I think he starts with, with humor, sometimes quite broad, sometimes even surreally that in a multi-play fun way. And then somewhere in the mid point of the film you're starting to really invest in these people. Speaker 3: 03:27 And by the end I think it's very emotional and very heartfelt. And that's, that's a Testament to him that I am genuinely, I just don't know quite how he did it. I, it's some kind of slight of hand that that is very impressive. And I think in part it's because Tyco is just very instinctive. Yeah. I think he just, he, he just goes with his gut and I think he feels, whereas perhaps I would have overanalyzed it. I think he's just gone with, I'm going to make you laugh and now I'm going to make you cry. And I think he just goes with his instinct and I think he pulls it off magnificently. I really was dazzled when I, when I saw the finished film. Speaker 2: 04:02 Well, and you're seeing in particular too, he seemed to have a lot of fun with the physicality of you being very tall and exaggerating possibly. But you being very tall and Sam Rockwell being much shorter. Speaker 3: 04:14 Well, I sort of was towering above Sam in a very deliberate way to seem like this intimidating you stop officer. And then it's like, I just thought that was funny and so then put me on a ball to make me even told her again. And I'm already six foot seven. It's rare that people make me stand on a box in a movie that nobody want me to cry or bend down. So, um, yes. Uh, but yes, there's a kind of subtle ways of using sort of physical humor, which, which I always love as a very tall English person with blondish hair. It was inevitable to me one day I would get the phone call, we wanted to play a Nazi. It feels like every English actor plays a Nazi at some point. But I just picked it. I was able to do it for Tyco. Speaker 2: 04:57 And how do you tackle a role like that? Speaker 3: 04:59 Well, to me, I was put in mind of the sample officers you saw in movies like ah, the great escape or uh, even Raiders of the lost arc in which there's something sort of, it's, it always felt very bureaucratic and it's something about that which made them all the more chilling for me. They always seemed like petty men, men have no of no significance in, you know, in life who had sort of somehow been given the power of life and death over people. And so they were sorts of, they were characters like, like type before dirty guys, insecure people who have suddenly been given this power. And sometimes for me, they're the scariest people because, because they don't wheel the gun, you know, they make other people do that dirty work. And so for us, for me it would start trying to be sort of both slightly buffoonish likely kind of nerdy bureaucrat who then can suddenly turn on a diamond B eerie and, and have a can, a creepy smile. And that was what we were shooting for. And again, as you said before, just trying to get that balance of, of humor with hopefully something more real or sincere or in this case, chilling. Speaker 2: 06:09 I recently had the opportunity to, um, interview, uh, Armando Iannucci about his films and work. And one of the things you mentioned is that he said our real world and our real politics have become so absurd that like he felt he had to quit Veep because he couldn't, as a comedy writer, he couldn't come up with anything more absurd. And then he turned to Soviet Russia to make a film. So as someone who does deal with a lot of comedy, I mean, is there that sense that sometimes the real world gets so absurd? It's, it's hard to find comedy, like contemporary stuff. You have to go back in time to, Speaker 3: 06:45 well, yeah, I mean I think that, I think that's true. I feel like we are living in an age in which the rules that used to exist, particularly politics sort of no longer do. And it seemed like the rules was what you could mock and, and you could, you know, for instance, you know the classic, the rule used to be, you've lied. Oh no, I'm human. I did ashamed, I better resign. But if you just say, no, I didn't lie, you're sort of invincible. And it does make satire and comedy much harder because you used to try and expose that hypocrisy. You played that hypocrisy for last, but that policy is just worn as a badge of honor name. So it is, it is somehow, you know, you, you go back as Armando did to style in this Russia where you go back as we have to world war II and, and, and yes, at least, at least somehow the rules were clearer. And so, yeah, it is, it is difficult. It's very, it's, it's, it's also, I think always slightly depressing that no matter how many times a late night talk show host or a Saturday night live sketch mocks the current political climate, it makes no real impact. And he starts to feel a little bit like you're just, um, again, without wishing to be vulgar. As we were saying to England, you're pissing into the wind. Speaker 1: 07:58 That was KPBS arts reporter Beth Huck Amando speaking with actor Stephen merchant, who plays a Nazi in the new film, Jojo rabbit. You can hear the full interview on the latest episode of Beth's cinema junkie podcast.

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Takia Waititi goes from the safety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the tricky and risky comic terrain of "Jojo Rabbit," which is being billed as an "anti-hate satire."
KPBS Midday Edition Segments