JOJO RABBIT—Recreating WWII Germany

Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), wearing a green coat and green hat, and her son, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), wearing a black Nazi uniform, stand in the street of their fictional town, Falkenheim, in Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Writer/director Taika Waititi follows in the footsteps of some of his personal filmmaking heroes like Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, and Mel Brooks by tapping into the tradition of parodying Nazi Germany on-screen with his latest comedy, Jojo Rabbit. This World War II satire stars Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie, and Taika Waititi as Adolf Hitler. Permeating through the set design and costumes of Jojo Rabbit are vibrant colors that were a reality during the time period, much to the surprise of many who have grown accustomed to the black-and-white and somber colors from historical footage and still images. On-location filming in Europe, combined with an attention to historical detail, combine with a creative freedom that helps to recreate WWII Germany. 

Jojo Rabbit centers on a lonely German boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), who is forced to confront his blind nationalism after his world gets turned upside down upon the discover that his single mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is hiding a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in their attic. Throughout the movie, Jojo is guided by his imaginary friend and advisor, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Waititi’s screenplay is based on the 2004 novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens.

Jojo Rabbit-Roman Griffin Davis
Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) from Jojo Rabbit (2019)

The story unfolds through the eyes of this 10-year-old boy, leading to a multihued world full of beauty amidst the destruction and impending doom of war. Taika Waititi sought to provide audiences something more than the typical, nostalgic “wartime look” to which many have grown accustomed. “We didn’t want to push too far into something surreal,” says Waititi, “but we wanted to really bring out the color and energy you don’t usually see.” Waititi reunited with production designer Ra Vincent (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Thor: Ragnarok) and costume designer Mayes Rubeo (Avatar, Thor: Ragnarok) to create the world of Jojo Rabbit. Director of photography Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master, Sleepless) led the crew in their effort to bring Waititi’s vision to life in an authentic and historically accurate way. 

“One of the things Taika and I talked about in the beginning is that our perception of that time can play tricks on us,” says Mihai Malaimare Jr. “We have seen so many muted period films from WWII, whether in black & white or in more somber colors, that we are shocked to see such a vibrant spectrum of color. But that was the reality and once we decided to reflect this, it was an idea that circulated through the set design and the costumes and helped to set the tone Taika wanted for the story.” This tone delicately balances the anxiety and destruction of wartime life with the naivety and joy of children. To better depict this dichotomy, Malaimare studied authentic images of children from wartime Europe, specifically the work of Magnum Photos founder Henri Cartier-Bresson. 

Jojo Rabbit-cast
(left to right) Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), Adolf (Taika Waititi), and Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) in Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Jojo lives in the fictional town of Falkenheim. To bring this town to life, the production filmed in two small towns in the Czech Republic— Žatec and Úštěk—an area that was under Germany occupation in WWII. Given that these locations were not heavily bombed like many in Europe, the pre-war buildings retained their old-world, storybook look. “We chose these towns because it had so much character and it felt like the most German of all the Czech towns we visited, with lots of German-style baroque architecture,” says Ra Vincent. Malaimare reveled in the authentic locations that provided him with great creative freedom. “Often on a period film, you’re trying to hide signs of the modern world with camera angles and lighting but here, everything looked so good and authentic and there was so much detail in every direction, it allowed us so many more options,” says Malaimare. 

Taika Waititi on His WWII Satire, JOJO RABBIT

For the majority of interior sets, the production filmed on stages in Prague’s Barrandov Studios, the very same studio that produced Nazi propaganda during the occupation. Much of the action in Jojo Rabbit takes place in the Betzler house, where Jojo lives with his mother, Rosie. “We wanted Jojo and Rosie’s house to have a very different kind of palette from other period films,” explains Vincent. “The building itself is a typically baroque, terraced, stone house but we decided that in furnishing and decorating it, the Betzlers would be very switched on and with the times. That era between 1930 and 1945 was actually a revolutionary one for style in Europe, despite the war. And Rosie’s a very stylish woman, so her house has a lot of flair, with very modern, Art Deco designs.” Malaimare notes that Vincent’s interior sets in the Betzler house were “so rich that we could shoot in every direction,” lending a creative freedom much like the one gained from the authentic Czech towns. 

Jojo Rabbit-war scene

Juxtaposed with the bright, modern house interiors is the hidden darkness of the attic in which Elsa lives. This juxtaposition of light and dark is an underlying theme in the movie, which features an overall color palette that becomes darker alongside the darkening events. “For the happier, more playful moments in the film, we used a diverse palette of oversaturated colors,” says Vincent. “Then, we taper those off as more drama comes into play.” 

Jojo Rabbit premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival on September 8th, where it won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award. The movie comes to select Regal theatres beginning this Friday, October 18th. 

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