Playing the only serious role in Taika Waititi’s WWII comedy Jojo Rabbit, of a Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis, meant a journey into history for in-demand Kiwi actress Thomasin McKenzie.
It’s a gate through a high stone wall with the painted inscription: Arbeit Macht Frei. The slogan “work sets you free” is best known as the iron banner above the gates to Auschwitz. But the one on McKenzie’s social media, complete with her thoughts comparing Hitler’s Final Solution with Donald Trump’s view on illegal migrants, is from Terezín (or Theresienstadt), the former Jewish ghetto-concentration camp 60km north-west of Prague.
The 19-year-old actor, who scored an international breakthrough in last year’s American survivalist drama Leave No Trace, visited there as she joined the cast of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, which the writer- director shot in Prague, the Czech capital.
The comedy, in which Waititi himself plays Hitler as an imaginary friend and Führer figure to 10-year-old boy Jojo, is set in a fantasy Nazi-kitsch version of wartime Germany. McKenzie’s performance as Elsa, a Jewish girl Jojo’s mother has hidden in their house, is the film’s best and most grown-up dramatic component in an ensemble also featuring Scarlett Johansson, Rebel Wilson, Sam Rockwell and Stephen Merchant.
“My character is definitely one of the more grounded characters in the film,” McKenzie agrees on the line from her Beverly Hills hotel room as she gets ready for the film’s Los Angeles premiere that night. “And although it is a comedy, we’re dealing with a very tough subject matter, a very real subject matter. So I definitely took the responsibility to tell Elsa’s story very seriously, because I was aware that I was representing a large group of people. I didn’t take that lightly.”
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Yesterday I went to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp near Prague that was in use during WW2. Back then Jews were compared to rodents by a man whose ‘final solution’ was to exterminate them. Recently Trump did an interview in which he mentioned a group of people being deported from the United States, saying they’re “not people. They’re animals”. It’s chilling to hear the same kind of dehumanisation that led to the death of millions of people, said by a modern day leader.
Terezín wasn’t the only reminder of what her character represented. She imagined that might have been the place Elsa would have been sent had she not been given an Anne Frank-like refuge. Yes, she read The Diary of a Young Girl, years ago. She also read others by Jewish girls living during the Holocaust as preparation for the role as well as seeing Schindler’s List and doing her own online research. Delving into all that harrowing history, she says, was the biggest challenge of the role.
“Learning that information was the hardest part because there are just so many senseless, monstrous, horrific things Jewish people had to go through, and it’s scary to know that people can be capable of so much hatred and inflicting so much pain.”
On a tour with a historian, she learnt that its synagogues and monuments survived the German occupation only because Hitler wanted it preserved as a “Museum of an Extinct Race”. Likewise, she was intrigued that Prague’s historic Barrandov Studios, where Jojo was shot, had been used for Nazi propaganda films such as Jud Süß/Suss the Jew, the infamous 1940 anti-Semitic drama conceived by Joseph Goebbels.
Terezín itself was the subject of a propaganda film, The Führer Gives the Jews a City, for which the ghetto-camp was set up by the SS as a display model to placate the International Red Cross and provide window dressing for the genocide. But of the 140,000 people who passed through – many in transit to death camps such as Auschwitz – only 20,000 survived.
So, against all that, how did McKenzie feel about being in a comedy set in that period, one that’s being sold as “an anti-hate satire” and seems to have polarised critics since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September?
“Some of the response to Jojo Rabbit has been that people don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate or maybe think it’s too soon to be approaching this part of history in this way. But it’s been 80 years since [Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler-skewering] The Great Dictator and so Taika is kind of following on with a tradition of using humour to tell this story. It makes this part of our history feel more accessible for the younger generation and maybe easier to understand or absorb.
“Another point of this film is to highlight how ridiculous the Nazi regime was, how senseless and stupid their ideas and their beliefs were and the things that they made up. When we watch it through a 10-year-old’s eyes, I also see how manipulative it was, how manipulative those leaders were.”
Most of her scenes are with young Jojo Betzler (played by Roman Griffin Davis), who discovers Elsa in the attic. He is afraid but fascinated – having heard about Jews’ apparent secret powers at his Hitler Youth classes – and doesn’t turn her in. Elsa is defiant and brave and soon has Jojo captivated. That’s the way Waititi wanted her, she says, remembering how the director told her to watch American high-school black comedies Heathers and Mean Girls to help give Elsa an attitude.
“The point of that was to kind of remind me that although Elsa is the victim and going through this terrible time in World War II and the Holocaust, being a victim is not what defines her as a person. Like the girl in Mean Girls, she knows she could have been part of the popular group at school … she’s lived a full life and she’s a human being going through puberty and going through all of the experiences that everyone on this planet goes through.”
Elsa spends much of the film cooped up in a space in the wall of Rosie’s (Johansson) house, all part of the set at Barranadov. Initially, McKenzie found the hidey-hole suffocating. But she realised the cramped space also represented a sanctuary, one she would decorate with trinkets for Elsa. On lunch breaks she would often crawl back inside for a lie-down.
But she’s not just striking while the iron is hot. “I think there are many amazing scripts out there at the moment; it’s hard to say no, but my team and I have definitely put a lot of thought into what projects I do. After Leave No Trace, we spent a lot of time thinking about what a good follow-up film would be and we landed on Jojo Rabbit.”
Team Thomasin consists of her US-based agents, managers and publicists and New Zealand agent, plus her film-industry-veteran parents who have taken turns to accompany her on shoots. But she’s still the captain.
“It’s Thom’s gig,” says Harcourt. “She is very smart and professional. She’s got great taste and she has a strong feeling for the kind of roles she wants to play, the kind of stories she wants to be part of and the kind of excitement she wants to feel. Her team keep it fun, they are encouraging and supportive, offer sophisticated advice and help her meet some of the best film-makers working today. She’s bloody lucky.
“She is also a fiercely independent person and is not afraid to throw herself into the ring. She is developing the muscle to be in this career for the long haul.”
McKenzie has a small role in The King, Australian director David Michôd’s adaptation of Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, and Henry V, which stars Timothée Chalamet as young Henry/Prince Hal, and is having a limited cinema release before heading to Netflix. Yes, she’s done Shakespeare before – a scene from Romeo and Juliet at school in her mid-teens: “I didn’t do very well.” After finishing Jojo Rabbit, she posted Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech from The Merchant of Venice on Instagram. The King offered her only two scenes but she was keen to be a part of it.
“What really attracted me to doing The King was the fact that there are only three female roles. It’s a very masculine film, but each of the females in the film had something important to say. They each have a lot of wisdom and they don’t have any hidden agenda. They just are trying to help Hal on his journey.”
She’s just spent six months in London playing the lead in Last Night in Soho, a film by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) reportedly inspired by the psychological thrillers of Nicolas Roeg and Roman Polanski, before heading home for a role in The Justice of Bunny King by first-time feature director Gaysorn Thavat and writer Sophie Henderson.
So there will be plenty more premieres and Instagram opportunities in McKenzie’s it-girl future and she’s not about to complain about the non-acting, brand-building side of being an in-demand screen actor.
“I really love creating the looks for each red carpet and everything, working with my amazing publicity team and meeting cool people. But I’m doing what I do because of the acting and the story-telling – that’s what I love.”
Jojo Rabbit and The King are in cinemas now.
This article was first published in the November 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.