Taika Waititi knew that casting himself as Adolf Hitler in a Holocaust comedy might not be Oscar bait.
“I thought this was going to be a career ender,” the “Jojo Rabbit” writer and director half-jokingly told a crowd last Thursday night after a screening of the film at the 92nd Street Y.
It turned out to be a career-maker. The black comedy about a 10-year-old boy whose imaginary friend is the Fuhrer and whose mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home garnered six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Waititi said he is thrilled that Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation announced in December that it will be using his movie as an educational tool.
“It’s the thing that makes me feel like the effort was worth it,” Waititi said.
The need for Holocaust education was made more obvious by a recent Pew survey, which Waititi noted revealed that 66 percent of American millennials had never heard of Auschwitz.
“The nominations and all this stuff is great; my ego can really handle it,” Waititi said. “But to know that the film has a bigger life outside of that and will continue long after … is really special.”
He also said he was pleased that Mel Brooks, who mocked the Nazis in his 1967 classic “The Producers,” praised “Jojo Rabbit.” Waititi said a good litmus test is that his own mother, Robin Cohen, liked it and a number of families of survivors told him they enjoyed it. The Y crowd liked it too, as the film got a thunderous applause when the credits ran.
The director spoke Jan. 30 in conversation with former InStyle editorial director Ariel Foxman and “Jojo” producer Carthew Neal.
Foxman said that as a member of a family with Holocaust survivors, he could not make jokes about that time period and recalled a “Seinfeld” controversy in which people wondered if it was OK to have a character called “The Soup Nazi.”
Foxman asked Waititi about permission to poke fun of the Nazis. The director, who has Russian Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side (he also uses the name Taika Cohen) and New Zealand Maori ancestry on his father’s side, said previous filmmakers broke the doors open in mixing humor with the Holocaust and he just went through.
He said Nazis were always portrayed as people to be feared and he wanted to take some of the power away.
“Comedy,” he said, “has always for me been a very important tool in fighting against dictators and group think.”