In 2008, Christine Leunen published her novel Caging the Sky, which is about a boy named Johannes Betzler growing up in Nazi Germany during World War II. The book introduces him as an avid member of the Hitler Youth and follows him in his discovery of a Jewish girl, Elsa, hidden in his home who challenges his assumptions about the world and his role in it.
In 2019, Caging the Sky was adapted into the very popular and successful “anti-hate satire” film Jojo Rabbit, written and directed by Taika Waititi, who won an Oscar for the screenplay and was nominated as one of its producers in the Best Picture category. In stark contrast to the bleak novel, Waititi’s film takes an unexpectedly colorful tone and appearance.
When asked about the change, Leunen said, “Taika Waititi and I both seek our own balance of drama and humor, he leaning more toward humor and I more toward drama. It’s often after a laugh that one’s feelings are drawn back to a sense of reality where things aren’t right, into deeper, sadder emotions, like the realization of the absurdity and tragedy of Johannes’ and Elsa’s situations.”
Working alongside Watiti on the adaptation was cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr., who is best known for his work on Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. We got together with Mihai to discuss the look of Jojo Rabbit, the collaborative process that comes with working with its director, and some of the adaptational choices made in contrast to the novel. Here is our conversation:
When you first got involved in the project, how did Taika describe the look that he wanted to have in the film?
What’s really interesting is that [Taika] is such a collaborative person. He had a few ideas, but it was more about getting everybody together and working through researching imagery and trying to discover everything as a team more than having a specific idea about all of it. But I’m pretty sure like, deep inside that he knew that not shying away from color saturation would be a good choice and so on. What’s sort of interesting about it — and I do enjoy seeing projects like this, like solving a puzzle, where everybody gets together and piece by piece, day by day, everything becomes more clear and you see everything develop in such amazing teamwork rather than getting all the information off everybody doing things by themself.
Jojo Rabbit is based on a book, but the book seems a lot darker than the film, with a lot less levity and silliness. Did much inspiration for the aesthetic of the film come from the book or instead from the collaborative approach that you describe?
I think it was more the collaborative parts that happened on set in prep. But I think that everybody knew that…a lot of times Taika does comedy for a bigger purpose. He can make the audience relax in order to deliver a more powerful message. We all knew and admired that about Taika. Even if we knew that the book didn’t have the same tone, we knew that he would be able to deliver the same message.
Elsa’s introduction seems like it had a lot of calls to horror movies tropes, like when she wraps her fingers around the door or creeps her hand down the stairs; it did a lot to communicate how afraid Jojo was based off all the brainwashing he’d had. But then, as Jojo gets to know her, Elsa softens. Did you change how you shot her character throughout the movie?
I don’t think it was necessarily just her character. I remember that we spoke about particularly how Jojo discovered Elsa, but it was also a larger discussion about framing and character and how, basically, the distance between them changes over a certain amount of time. We did quite a lot of camera tests to just choose our cameras. We narrowed it down to 1.85 and the reason for that is that we thought that it will allow us to shoot two people in a room that has a larger distance between them but it will work just as well when they are closer to each other. So I think it was more about finding out how to work their relationship more than just off of character.
And you used a lot of anamorphic lenses in this movie, right?
Yeah, and that was the main thing because when we did the camera test, we realized that we were really interested in the quality of anamorphics, and we tested 2.40 and it seemed too overly cinematic. It didn’t work as well, framing-wise, as the 1.85 was. But we kept missing the anamorphic quality so working with these Hawks 1.3 anamorphic, that allowed us to have a true 1.85 anamorphic. And what that gave us is all those velvety-like skin tones, and anamorphic flares, and amazing follows, and a really interesting background.
Absolutely, I think that was a really good choice. The 2.40 is a little more Panavision Western whereas this film had a lot more indoor scenes.
Yeah, it’s a more intimate format than the 2.40.
I noticed throughout the movie that you focused on different features for different characters. For Elsa, there was a lot with her hands. For Rosie, the focus was on her shoes, which was so charming at first, and then so heartbreaking later. For Jojo, the focus always seems to be on his big blue eyes, so innocent looking. What was the thought process that went into that? How do you emphasize those features in a shot?
There were long discussions we had about Rosie’s shoes because we knew what would happen. The idea was that we should find a way to show and make the audience know that those are her shoes but doing it in a way that was not too right-on-the-nose. It was about finding…I mean, it can be done very easily by just dropping the camera down and doing a close-up but it was more about finding locations that would allow us to see the shoes but have her in the frame at the same time, like in the swimming pool or when she was dancing on that ledge by the river.
All the scenes with Scarlett Johansson seemed so warm and very colorful. When Jojo is out on his own and especially after she dies, it’s like all the colors were slowly sapped out of the film. The Nazis and Gestapo are shown in browns and blacks. Did you try to emphasize this using specific lighting or color saturation?
Yes, and this came from all the departments. We spoke about it, and the production designer, the costume designer, and Taika all had kind of the same reaction when we first saw color footage or color stills from World War II. It was interesting that there is actually so much color there, and also, if you think about it, Agfa was one of the first color negatives in the world [Author’s note: Afgacolor was a German color film product first released in 1932]. So what was interesting is that it came from all the departments — from the art department through the sketches, or from the costume departments through the costume samples. We decided to go that way because it was also mentioned in the story, telling the war through a 10-year-old’s eyes. But it needed to allow us to shoot that tone towards the end. It had deep roots in reality but it also helped us to achieve that tonal shift toward the end.
That was a very visual indication of Jojo’s loss of innocence. Especially in the middle, when Jojo follows that blue butterfly and finds his mother hanged. I was doing some reading about this and the butterfly has become a symbol of the Holocaust, specifically the children who died at the hands of the Nazis. Was that a deliberate reference or a coincidence?
I am really not sure, but knowing Taika, it probably was [deliberate].
At the end, there is a great long shot of Jojo running through the battle. Were the explosions practical or digital?
They were all practical. It was one of those moments that we all decided that we definitely wanted to do that whole moment in one shot. What is interesting about it is that, with the right tools — like if we would have used a techno-crane would have been easy to do it, but the problem was that, in that particular spot, there was no way to fit a techno-crane. So it was very coordinated move on the dolly and all the explosions were practical and all the extras that were running around; it was so much to coordinate. But we were still able to do it in five or six takes. It was one of those moments that by take 2 we had kind of lost all the hope, and we kind of gained it back by take 3. It’s very tricky, especially with the kind of explosions and all the chaos that was around Jojo.
Do you remember exactly how many takes it took to get it?
I think it took five or six takes. It wasn’t that long. Of course, having to deal with the explosions with a reset time of 30 minutes because they need to recharge and make sure it was safe, it actually took about half a day.
How do you plan out the cinematography for long takes like that, is it a lot of storyboarding or do you have to do a lot of run-throughs?
Luckily we had enough time in prep, and we knew that location very well. I think, since day 1 of scouting that location, we knew that we wanted to do that shot; we knew that was the path that Jojo would take and he would hide in that spot. It was more logistical planning, but we were so convinced that it should be only one take that we worried more about the elements with all the other elements like the special effects, and all the other extras, and the lighting and the camera mode. But it did take a lot of team effort to do that.
Why did you choose to avoid handheld shots and go for more Steadicam shots instead? Was that specific to Jojo Rabbit or is it more your preferred style of shooting?
I think it is a little bit of both. We knew from the beginning that having so much color would be a special thing to do for a World War II movie and we felt that adding handheld to it might feel like too out of the story. I’m not sure if it has to do with a sort of melancholy. There are so many handheld movies nowadays. So that element should be kept as classical as possible so it doesn’t throw you out of the story. That was our main rule from the beginning; we knew that, no matter what, we would have to stay away from the handheld. I do enjoy shooting handheld, but I do think that was the right choice for Jojo’s story.
Was it strange to have your director in a full Hitler costume while working on a film?
[Laughter] It was. But on the other hand, that didn’t happen very often. A lot of times, when he was done with the scene, he would take everything off. So I expect it was uncomfortable for him as well.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.