When picturing Nazi Germany during World War II, most people think of black-and-white or sepia-toned images of drab cities. For the cinematographer and production designer of “Jojo Rabbit,” a film set squarely in that time and place, it became clear that the color palette of the era was far more varied than they could have imagined.
As preparation for shooting Taika Waititi’s satire, adapted from Christine Leunens’ book “Caging Skies,” cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. and production designer Ra Vincent researched the era using photos and footage that had been restored to reveal the colors of the period.
“The primary goal was to show environments from a child’s point of view that had a playful nature to them, instead of an adult point of view,” says Vincent. “What the locations department came back with were these little cute Czech villages that were right on the German border. They pretty much exist the way they were, and we realized that the 1930s and 1940s in Germany were quite expressive. You see it in the palette — that it wasn’t all kind of dusty and dirty. It was a time for great expression in art and design.”
Vincent and Malaimare had offices next to each other during production and soon began talking with Waititi about the rich colors — reds, especially, but other hues too — that they wanted to bring into the picture. The brighter shades furthered the perspective of seeing Nazi Germany through the eyes of a child.
Filmmakers wanted to set up Jojo’s house as a kind of sanctuary and safe space where he feels protected and close to his mother. Once he walks outside and starts training with his youth group, he enters a more dangerous and unpredictable world.
“The trickiest place was really Jojo’s room and the other rooms in the house, because they needed to be set up to prompt an emotional response, and we gave color cues about what was going to happen there that would change Jojo,” Vincent says.
Adds Malaimare: “We were deliberately placing the camera at Jojo’s level, so we would see things from his perspective and feel what he was feeling. So you see his imaginary friend — Hitler [played by Waititi] — in the way a child might see him: larger than life. And the color palette is part of that, too, because when you look back on childhood, you remember things a certain way. There’s not this sense that everything has no color.”
When the film moves into a fighting sequence, the colors begin to change and dim as the story becomes far darker.
“For the battle and toward the end, it was our chance to have a different look, because we had so much color before,” says Malaimare. “It was also a way to show the passage of time. We wanted to bring color to Jojo’s story, and we didn’t shy away from it, but when we started to work with more muted colors, it was a surprise, because by then I was so used to the brighter colors that we’d seen for the first two hours.”