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Why Taika Waititi is making fun of the Führer

“This film is going to piss off a lot of racists, and that makes me very happy,” says Taika Waititi of his new Hitler film Jojo Rabbit. 

There’s a curious confluence in Taika Waititi’s new movie Jojo Rabbit – fatherhood meets Fatherland. Kids in need of father figures were at the core of Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which he wrote and directed. In Boy, the young lead character imagined his absent parent as a sort of superhero – until the real one turned up. In Jojo Rabbit, a German youngster conjures up Hitler as his imaginary dad – he’s literally a Hitler youth.

Waititi, fresh from directing Aryan space warrior Thor in last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, plays the Führer of the kid’s fantasy world. He tweeted: “What better way to insult Hitler than having him portrayed by a Polynesian Jew?

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“This film is going to piss off a lot of racists, and that makes me very happy,” he told TV3’s Newshub, perhaps hopefully.

Waititi may see himself playing the leader of the Third Reich as provocative in 2018, but Jewish and part-Jewish funny guys have been playing Hitler, well, almost since there was a Hitler.

Jewish comedy great Peter Sellers, who played the eponymous Nazi scientist in the 1964 Stanley Kubrick black comedy Dr Strangelove, played Hitler in the lesser-known 1974 comedy Soft Beds, Hard Battles.

In 1967, Sellers accepted a role in Jewish-American screen-comedy king Mel Brooks’ first feature as director, The Producers. It’s a story of dubious Broadway impresarios, who create musical Springtime for Hitler, hoping for a financial loss.

Sellers never showed and his role went to Gene Wilder. Brooks supplied Adolf’s singing voice for the musical. He played him again in David Frost-fronted television current affairs spoof Peeping Times in 1978, then again in the 1983 remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 film To Be or Not to Be, which also featured him in one of the earliest hip-hop parodies, Hitler Rap, on its soundtrack (“Don’t be stupid, be a smarty/Come on and join the Nazi Party”).

Brooks got flak from his fellow Jews for making Hitler a figure of fun, but he thought his spoofs had a deeper purpose.

“It is an inverted seizure of power,” he told Der Spiegel in 2006. “For many years, Hitler was the most powerful man in the world and almost destroyed us. To possess this power and turn it against him – it is simply alluring.

“Of course, it is impossible to take revenge for six million murdered Jews. But by using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths.”

Charlie Chaplin wasn’t Jewish, despite FBI and MI5 attempts to pin down the roots of the British star, whose politics got him barred from the McCarthy-era United States in 1952.

Chaplin, of course, played Hitler as “Adenoid Hynkel” in 1940’s The Great Dictator, as well as his doppelgänger “the Jewish Barber”, a character who is sent, briefly, to a concentration camp.

The film, released before the US entered World War II, was a hit and is regarded as a classic piece of cinematic satire, although Chaplin had regrets about it later.

“Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis,” he wrote in his 1964 autobiography.

This article was first published in the July 7, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.