IT WASN'T THE MOUSTACHE THAT BOTHERED HIM MOST Nor the straightened, dyed hair, pasted down over his forehead. Nor the jackboots or the brown shirt. Nor even the sweat-inducing fat suit clinging beneath it all. When Taika Waititi first looked at himself in the mirror as Adolf Hitler, the thing that really made him uncomfortable was the swastika band wrapped around his left arm. “It’s so bright and in your face,” he grimaces. “It’s just a horrible thing to look at.”
Today, late September in Hollywood, Waititi’s hair is back to its springy, grey-flecked self, and he’s stretched out on a couch wriggling his toes in a pair of odd houndstooth socks. Unlike, say, Charlie Chaplin, who lampooned der Führer in 1940’s The Great Dictator, Waititi couldn’t look any less like Hitler if he tried. But when he first saw himself as the Nazi commander-in-chief, who appears as a ten-year-old German boy’s imaginary friend in Waititi’s latest film Jojo Rabbit, he wasn’t so much shocked by the transformation as mortified.
“I was just sort of embarrassed. That’s the main thing. I was embarrassed all the time to look like that. Going on set, I’d say, ‘Look, sorry everyone.’ It felt like it was hard for it not to be gratuitous. You start asking yourself why you’re really doing it: ‘Why am I dressed like this?’”
It’s a good question. After directing the raucous ard ridiculously successful Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel Studios, Taika Waititi arguably could have made any movie he wanted. “The next logical choice was Batman, wasn’t it?” he says. Instead, he chose to make a whimsical satire set in Nazi Germany, starring himself as the founder of the Third Reich.
It’s fair to ask: what the hell was he thinking?
TAIKA AND ADOLF go back a long way. Despite being half-Russian-Jewish (on his mother Robin’s side), at around the age of 12 he became fascinated by Hitler — primarily that moustache which, confusingly for young Taika, the Führer shared with the none-more-loveable Chaplin. He also started obsessively drawing swastikas. He’d scribble them on his school notebooks, then instantly feel guilty and quickly turn them into windows before anybody noticed. Soon all his schoolbooks were covered in pictures of houses. There is a moment in Waititi’s semi-autobiographical 2010 film Boy where, in the role of the title character’s no-good dad, he reveals a swastika etched into his childhood bedroom wall, hidden behind a hanging picture. “Don’t get into the Nazi stuff,” he warns his kid, as if talking directly to his past self.
Of course, grown-up Taika didn’t heed that advice, creatively speaking. Around the time he was making Boy, his mother told him about a novel she’d just read, Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, which involved a Hitler-worshipping German kid who discovers and ultimately befriends a Jewish girl hiding in his attic during World War II. It is tempting to think that, having drawn on the Maori side of his childhood for Boy, he realised Caging Skies would offer him a chance to explore his Jewish heritage. But, says Waititi, “It’s not about me trying to make a Jewish film, or a white film.” It was more about Waititi trying to fathom the terrible acts people commit during wartime, despite lessons we should have learned from the past. He’d been reading about the Bosnian War, keen to investigate exactly what had happened during this conflict, which had raged on the other side of the world while he was a teenager in New Zealand, more interested in going out and “kissing girls”. He was shocked and disgusted by what he learned. “I could not believe how atrocious some of the violence was against civilians,” he says, “and against children and against women.” It made him wonder how, after the horrors of World War II, anything like that could still happen. Curious, he looked up how many conflicts had occured since 1945. He soon gave up. There have been hundreds.
“The cynical part of me, which I really fight with a lot, tries to tell me that we will never learn our lesson,” he says. “But the optimist in me keeps reminding me that we have to keep creating art, and we have to keep teaching each other lessons and telling these stories. And we have to try our hardest to raise children to understand that peace, tolerance and understanding are better.”
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