The author of the book had a great line about your films: “Laughs are never free. There are always strings attached.” Can you speak about the humor in this film and its fine calibration, especially in its opening sequences?
Taika Waititi: I always thought that humor and comedy are very powerful tools and effective weapons against bullies and bigotry. For a very long time it has been effective against dictators and people who enjoy spreading intolerance and hate. Sometimes people might feel nervous that there’s a mixing of this subject matter and infusing it with humor. The power of comedy is that it opens audiences up to deeper messages that you might want to deliver. It subverts what would normally be a very dramatic experience. When you open up, you’re more alert and more focused, and then the heavier things that happen in this film are more effective and I think are more impactful. Humor is not a new thing. It’s been eighty years since The Great Dictator came out. It’s not a very controversial idea to be mixing humor with this kind of subject matter. There’s this great story about Groucho Marx in the thirties. I think it was his daughter that was with some friends to celebrate a birthday in Beverly Hills in a country club. She wasn’t allowed in the pool because she was Jewish. There was a no Jews in the pool policy at the time. Retaliating in typical Groucho Marx fashion he said, “to be fair, she’s only half Jewish, so would you consider letting her into the pool up to her waist?” When you retaliate with humor and the ability to poke holes in these ridiculous ideas, if you poke enough holes in the fabric of these ludicrous world views, then you start seeing through it. You start to see it for what it is: a sort of thin veil. It then starts to disintegrate and fall apart.
All my films are a mixture of light and dark
Thomasin, I was wondering if you could speak about your first read through and where you first saw your character fitting into this story?
Thomasin McKenzie: I think Elsa is one of the more grounded characters in the film. I wanted to make sure not to play her in a funny way and to take her more seriously in the end. Definitely in the script and the writing there is a lot of humor. Elsa is a bit mean to Jojo and kind of pushes him around a bit. There is a kind of humor in there. When I first read the script, the tone was there. It was such a perfect script; I think everyone who was attached to the film knew what they were filming immediately going into it. Sometimes you do a film and you’re not quite sure what the tone is going to be. I think everyone kind of knew. We knew what we were making and we were proud of what we were making. We knew it had an important message and we knew it was going to be something special. In creating Elsa, I definitely did as much research as I possibly could to get her background, and then when we were doing the Holocaust lesson at school, I learned a lot about the structure and the facts about World War II. What were the causes and what were the consequences. I was curious to know what was the everyday life, what was it like to live back then. I talked with a historian, who was able to fill in a lot of gaps for me. And I spent time reading, I read books like “Anne Frank,” and I also went to Terezin concentration camp where Elsa likely would have gone had she been found. Only 150 kids survived that camp. I spent a lot of time in a Jewish order in Prague and in a synagogue. I just kind of walked around; it was really pretty and well preserved. There were a lot of Jewish artifacts as well that were well preserved in Prague because the Nazis planned to used the art in a kind of museum for an extinct race, which is a really terrifying idea. It’s really just wrong. Something really special about this film is that it allows us as an audience to look at World War II in a different way. I think in terms of Elsa, I approached the role having done all the research and all the preparation which allowed me to realize that of course Elsa is the victim and she’s been put through something that no person should have to experience; but she also is just a human being. She’s like me. She’s going through puberty, she’s got a crush on a boy, she is a really talented artist and she’s strong, courageous, and witty.
This film was a book first. Could you talk about adapting it?
TW: The book is a lot darker and more dramatic, while also being less humorous. But the story is essentially the same about a boy growing up in World War II Germany, the induction into the Hitler Youth, and then his discovery that his mother is hiding a girl in their attic. Then he has to deal with what in his mind is a monster living in his house. I took that storyline and I tried, but I’m not very good at making a straight drama. It’s not really my style. I worked quite particularly to my style of filmmaking. I added humor and this imaginary buffoon friend character, Hitler. All my films are a mixture of light and dark because I think that is more indicative of the human experience day to day. I don’t think there are many are many people who wake up and think, “it’s a comedy all day long!” I wanted to mix these things because everyday life is a turn from humor to tragedy, back to humor, to horror, and to drama. That is how I’ve always shaped my film.