A squeaky old lady voice came over the receiver. "Hello?" she creaked. "Is this someone from VICE? Hello. Is this VICE?" It was, indeed, someone from VICE, I told her. "This is Taika Waititi," she replied. "I'm gonna do the whole interview in this voice."
The endearingly kooky and famed writer and director of cult classics like What We Do in the Shadows and Eagle vs. Shark, who stepped into the big blockbuster flick mainstream with Thor: Ragnarok did not, actually, do our entire interview in the creaky old lady voice. But if he had, it would've been yet another charming story about a man who recently set the internet's heart aflame after he knocked over an interview set trying to give actor Chris Evans a hug.
Waititi's work is well-regarded for its offbeat, dry humor, originality, and blessedly non-cheesy wholesomeness. And he's back at it with his World War II satire Jojo Rabbit, which follows a boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) who has an unlikely, idiotic imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler, played by Waititi himself in full Hitler attire—mustache and all. When Jojo discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a Jewish girl in their attic, Jojo sets off on a personal journey to confront the hate and nationalism that's been ingrained in him.
The movie, based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens and adapted for the screen by Waititi, is a wry exploration of one of the most horrific periods in world history, and doesn't hold back in not only mocking the evildoers who created the Holocaust but also sweetly honoring those who fought back.
I had a conversation with an old lady who briefly purported to be Taika Waititi over the phone on a recent Sunday afternoon. We talked Jojo Rabbit (in theaters October 18), German tourists who deserve to be questioned on their grandparents' whereabouts, and the profound embarrassment and shame that comes with dressing like Hitler.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Ok, I'm going to ask you a series of questions now.
Taika Waititi: Oh ok, so it's an interview. Ok.
Yes. So, my first question is, how much do you hate Hitler?
On a scale of one to 1,000...a zillion!
Nice. Okay, because I had a sort Choose Your Own Adventure thing depending on your answer to that. But if you had said "ehh, he's misunderstood" I had a series of questions for that.
Oh my God! You did? [laughs]
Just in case! You never know.
The people who thought he was misunderstood are called Nazis.
I actually had to move the location of the interview because a German family sat next to me and I didn't want to do in front of them.
[giggles] They've gotta learn! They've gotta remember! Those little kids, they've gotta remember what their great-great-grandparents did! And they've gotta pay for it!
I agree. If their grandparents are in Argentina, I want to know what they were doing between 1935 and 1945.
Hey kid! Where's your fucking great-grandparents?!
Well, you said a zillion, so that's excellent. Considering that, how did you go about playing Adolf Hitler? Can you describe the feeling of seeing yourself dressed as Hitler?
The thing I felt when seeing myself in the mirror was sheer embarrassment mixed with a little touch of shame. Seeing myself dressed like that, with the regalia, made me feel disappointed in humans. I don't like going to work feeling sad or depressed. I like to enjoy my work, so I had to figure out a way of creating some sort of ownership over this character, and making it my own and making it bearable for me.
I did sort of treat it as if I'd possessed Hitler and taken over his body for a couple of months and then made him do whatever I wanted, which on set was to be really nice to people. But really, just make him a fool. Try and make him as as idiotic as possible, because I thought that's at least one way of empowering myself. Some part of me likes to think he [would] hate the fact that he was being portrayed by this New Zealander whose mother's family are Russian Jews and whose father's family are Polynesian. He'd really, really hate that. That made me happy, I guess.
Another issue is that we're often told we should find common ground with people amplifying hate. That's also pretty difficult. As we're seeing Nazism rising, and people trying to tell us to find common ground, how did you keep that balance of telling a story that speaks against hate and ridicules this monster without becoming a soppy "let's find the heart in these horrible people" type story?
Well, luckily I'm from New Zealand, and we have an allergic reaction to sentimentality. Even just the word "earnest" makes us cringe. Coming into the film, I'm very aware to ask myself "does this feel like an American movie? Does this part feel like the violins are about to start? Is this cheesy? Does it feel gross and a bit saccharine and kind of forced?"
Right, like the short kid is gonna catch the winning touchdown.
Totally. He's going to have a little flashback in that moment to something his dad said before his dad died in that logging truck accident. " I've always loved you, son. Just do your best." So going into this, there's always a worry with every film that you make that somehow you're gonna shit the bed. The thing about the films that I choose and try to make, I really don't want to repeat myself. And also, I think I do my best work when I feel nervous or if I'm a bit worried. If it feels at all like a career-ender, that's my comfort zone. With this one, I thought, well, I've had a good run. What better way to go out with my career then try to make a film with an imaginary Hitler.
I've had to watch a lot of other movies about Nazis-
Sometimes you go into a movie flinching and waiting for the thing that makes you cringe. It was nice to go into this and not have to flinch at all.
Well, that's good! Thank god! I mean, we've seen all those films before. That's the other thing about comedy that's so great: it has the ability to disarm people and also open audiences up to a deeper meaning behind the work. When you laugh, you become more receptive. You unfold your arms and you're sat listening and engaging more because laughter is a drug.
Some people have said "I'm not gonna watch that movie because it's not right to add jokes to the subject matter." They're not ready for it yet. And it's like, "But you were ready for it the year when the Second World War started, when Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator." It's not a new thing, putting humor into these films that have a deeper meaning or message. It was 80 years ago this year that [Chaplin] made that film. I wouldn't say it's too soon. It's not soon enough.
There's no "too soon" when it means destroying or ridiculing evil megalomaniacs.
Exactly. There's no "too soon" when it comes to making fun of Nazis. Also, the thing is, it's 2019. We shouldn't have to make this movie. This movie has no business existing. Why is it that it's 2019 and we still have to tell people that Nazis are bad?
I'm very disappointed in this film existing! [Laughs] I wouldn't even dare to compare myself to Greta Thunberg, but why is it that it's up to a 16-year-old kid to have to save this planet? Now we're leaving it up to kids to explain to the people that destroying the planet is bad? Which is kind of what one of the messages behind the film is, we as adults, we think we're putting on this big display of reliability and wisdom for children, and then when things like war happen, or any conflicts, or even day-to-day life, children see the behavior of adults. What chance do they have of growing up into decent, well-rounded, kind, and nice people? When most of what they see during a war is adults being maniacs and making no sense at all?
It's my hope that they're just so horrifyingly shocked.
Yeah like, I don't wanna be like that! So you're saying war is good. What I'm getting from you is that we need to expose kids to lots of violence and war so that they know not to do it.
It hasn't worked so far. Did you have to eat lunch in the costume? Like did you have to sit and eat a sandwich?
I mean, I'd take the mustache off.
Alex Zaragoza is the senior culture writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.