Steven Heller | Essays

The Novel That Took Me Down Jojo’s Rabbit Hole

Caging Skies by Christine Leunens is a novel about Hitler’s Third Reich without equal. It is seen through the eyes of Viennese 12-year-old Johannes Betsler, a devout member of the pre-teen Jungvolk and later the teenage Hitler Youth. His parents secretly oppose the Nazis and maintain secrecy in earshot of their fanatical son, who we are lead to believe would, in fact, do his duty by denouncing them. After Johannes loses his hand and part of his cheekbone during a bombing raid, he returns home to recuperate and discovers his mother is hiding Elsa, a Jewish girl, in a small partition between upstairs walls. He is uncertain whether or not to reveal his knowledge to the gestapo and falls into a moral netherworld, questioning his loyalty to the Fuhrer versus an intense, growing obsession with the older Elsa. The plot digs deeper and darker on each page until finally, at war’s end Johannes cannot let go of Elsa. This is a moral tragedy without a hint of comedy. Yet it is the basis for Taika Waititi’s hilariously funny film Jojo Rabbit, about a Jojo (a nickname for Johannes) who becomes entangled with his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler, who acts like a 12-year-old in ways that are both satiric and disturbing. By shear accident I read the book before seeing the film, which has little in common with Caging Skies other than Elsa’s role. Waititi’s film may very well earn him and his cast Oscar nominations, but Leunens earns my share of the kudos. I could not get the darkness of this charged scenario out of my head, so I recently contacted her at her home in New Zealand to answer a few of the many questions and address the emotions triggered by this amazing novel.

Steven Heller: Why did you write this novel about a Hitler Youth? Is there a personal connection? Is there a timely reference to what is happening with the upsurge of “charismatic” populism? Or like me, do you find it an unbelievable epoch of modern history?

Christine Leunens: There was no family connection to the Hitler Youth, but having heard so many dark stories about the Nazis from family, and spending years researching this era at the Memorial Museum for Peace, as it was then called, in Caen, Normandy, I wanted to try and understand how children had been lied to and manipulated for Hitler’s horrific political ends. I wanted to explore how it happened on a small scale, at school, at Jungvolk and Hitler Youth meetings and camps, what exactly they were taught, what were they asked to do (i.e., book burning), how they were given a sense of importance, a mission “to save Germany and the future of the German race”. I also wanted to learn how all this affected their families and home life.

I do believe that Caging Skies’ themes have become more relevant in the last couple of years, alas. Many countries that are now publishing the book are clearly experiencing a rise in the far right and a resurgence of racism. Despite the years of research I’ve done into the topic, I’m still left as deeply shocked as I was at the start as to how this could have ever had happened, the eugenics, the final solution, the sheer number of people who were taken in by the rhetoric of pure hate. For that, yes, the reminder is timely. When I was a university student, I used to think Socrates’ “know thyself” meant each individual should try and figure out who he or she really was on the inside. Now that I’m older, those words seem to apply more collectively to humankind. In history there’s a recurrent pattern: people fear, fear then turns to anger, they stop to reason, and rapidly resort to an “Us and Them” attitude that never ends well.

SH: I have read a lot about Edelweiss Pirates, Swing Kids, Sophie Scholl, and other anti-Nazis living in Germany. It seems like this is an era where the more “human” sides (especially the desperation felt by so many) of living in Nazi Germany has come to the fore. Do you feel that your story could have been told two or three decades ago?

CL: My agent, Laura Susijn, initially had trouble selling the book, but thankfully she had faith in it and persisted, and though it wasn’t first published in its original language, English, she found foreign publishers who agreed that it was an important work and translations in French, Italian, Spanish, and Catalan ensued. Then four years later it came out in English and many translations slowly followed, including Chinese, Russian, and Korean. Oddly enough, there is still no German translation, Germany doesn’t seem ready yet for Caging Skies. I think it’s the touchy subject of how children were indoctrinated by the adults they should have been able to trust. Other books have exposed the evil of the Nazis, but how they took such pains to teach innocent children, such as Johannes, to feel superior to other “inferior beings” that they must “rid the world of” is something that seems to still touch a raw nerve.

Nazi Germany and its collaborators systematically murdered six million people, mostly Jewish but also gays, Slavs, and others. I can never consider the children taken into the Jungvolk and Hitler Youth to be victims on that same level, because most were still left afterwards with their lives. But on some other level, these children were victims in their own right. Their innocence was stolen, their hearts blackened, their natural sense of justice perverted. I think my story is more easily told today, with both the greater distance from the atrocities, and also by approaching the collective mass with more discernment, sifting the children from the adults, and also recognizing that for some, both young and old, individual conscience remained intact. This must be acknowledged for people to ultimately feel that standing up for what’s right and humane counts, if not then, when so outnumbered, at least in principle later.

SH: There is a spate of curious novels, from Robert Harris’s FATHERLAND to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series that set Nazi Germany in a historical light. Have you read these and have they, or others books like Sarah’s Key, had an impact on you?

CL: I haven’t read any of these yet. I’ve read mostly history books and watched endless documentaries, and spoke to people who survived the era, including the late Simon Wiesenthal.

SH: That your main character, Johannes, is a loyal Hitler Youth allows for many psychological complexities. He loves, yet must suspect, his parents. He loves his grandmother. He falls in love with a Jewess. What makes him tic?

CL: Johannes starts off with the heart and playfulness of a normal little boy. Then he’s given a mission to save his race, and he feels a need to teach his parents everything that they’re teaching him in school as part of the “new curriculum”. Being taken one day into Hitler’s personal guard is what makes him tic in the early days, until he meets Elsa and all of his beliefs and prejudices are suddenly challenged. There’s guilt, a feeling he’s betraying his idol Hitler by not denouncing her, but then again he still loves his parents and grandmother, and doesn’t want anything to happen to them. So he’s a little boy very confused in all the chaos that adults have plunged him into.

SH: Have you ever met a former Hitler Youth or Band of German Maidens member? Obviously, the current generation is grappling with their parents’ complicity (i.e. Nora Krug’s graphic history of her family in Naziland Heimat). Where you able to gleen insignt from personal histories?

CL: First I read accounts and memoirs of former Hitler Youth and Band of German Maidens that I found at the museum’s library. Then I interviewed a few former Hitler Youth/Jungvolk members and one former Band of German Maidens member, promising them confidentiality so that they could speak freely. The scene in the book where the boys are killing ducklings was inspired by what I was told by them about the boys having to kill rabbits, twisting their necks. In the book I changed the rabbits to ducklings to camouflage the truth of what had happened that had been confided to me. Then I received the script from Taika, and without him knowing anything, he’d changed the scene back to rabbits! Also, one man was known by everyone by his nickname Jojo, and so I never used it (it's the diminutive of Johannes, a common name, the German equivalent of John). So imagine how I felt when the script came, and it was entitled, “Jojo Rabbit”. I sat there blinking at it a few times. The two things that I had tried to cover, seemed to want to jump out at me.

SH: I was surprised when you have him maimed so severely, yet he continues to do the bidding of his Fuhrer. Still, he doesn’t turn the girl in to the Gestapo. Aside from his infatuation (and frustration) is there another motive for his ambiguity?

CL: Elsa represents many things for him. She was the best friend of his sister, who died of diabetes. Ute and Elsa were part of his world before it turned upside down. Elsa remains his parents’ protégé, they show humanity by caring for her, awakening family values he shared before the big changes. Elsa is also her own self, charming, witty, bright, and her personality captivates him.

SH: There are times in the book, when Elsa treats him with disrespect (the way an older girl would treat a younger boy), that I feel for him. Are you saying she’s not grateful, just resentful or conflicted? Or she fears his power over her so much she attempts to empower herself?

CL: Elsa is a complex young woman in an impossible situation. She longs for her fiancée, Nathan, she feels gratitude towards Johannes’ parents, then guilt when he loses them because of her, her survivor guilt only made worse by the idea that she might not have risked her life to save anyone herself, as his parents have. To her, Johannes was the bratty little brother of her best friend, and as he gets older and matures, she feels (rightly) that she’s his intellectual superior, and she’s not about to give that rank up, having already had to give up so much of her life.

SH: Whenever she’s in the picture I feel so claustrophobic How can someone survive all those years in that hole?

CL: That’s something I ask myself each time I read a true account of someone who did survive in similar situations. I think the will to survive is fuelled by hope, to make it to the end when life will at last return to normal — everyone seems to intuit that one day it will — and love, the urge to see and hug loved ones again.

SH: I was also shivering when he lied to her about the outcome of the war. Where did that idea come from?

CL: That idea is at the essence of the book, truth and lies, and how lies can become real if only they are believed by someone else. I wanted to explore and tease out all the emotional and psychological elements that generate a lie, the irresistible urge to alter reality and outcome through use of words.

SH: I must ask because it has been gnawing at me day and night, was this entire part of the book real or an illusion for him?

CL: It’s real, but I do play with the idea that when he first put a knife to her throat, he could have killed her. And had he killed her, every moment that he has since spend with her would never have existed. I wanted that notion to reverberate subtly, as his psyche is tinged with guilt that arises from that knowledge.

SH: Eventually, the war comes to an end. Johannes is abandoned by everyone from der Fuhrer to his parents . . . He’s lost his childhood, he’s lost his reason for being. I don’t want you to give the ending away, but if you were to keep the story going, what would be his fate (and, if you want, what would be Elsa’s future)?

CL: His parents didn’t mean to abandon him, but of course he feels the loss of them heavily. I left the end an open one, because he speaks of so many possibilities, so many branches that could grow out of each choice. So though I leave it a fuzzy grey area with many possibilities even in my mind, my hope for her is that she makes her way to America where her brothers live. And that he is left writing this book, which may eventually find its way into her hands...

SH: I have not yet seen JoJo Rabbit, but I have seen various clips and read interviews. Although based on your novel, the film seems to be satiric and comical. How do you feel about the direction of this adaptation?

CL: I entrusted Taika Waititi with my book because his fine balance between drama and humour in his films I found made us part of the same artistic family — even if I lean more to drama and he, more to comedy. If the film doesn’t free itself to some degree from the book, the story risks not feeling alive in his new medium. I found that Taika, through humour, makes the uncomfortable themes of the story more approachable for many, that he stayed true to the plot and emotional core, while housing the Elsa, Johannes, Roswita, etc., in a beautiful and moving, but also entertaining, film.

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