Best Picture Oscar nominee JoJo Rabbit is such an unusual, fascinating, entertaining movie that after seeing it on the big screen earlier this year, I felt compelled to read the novel on which it’s based. As Batman’s Robin might say, “Holy Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde!”
Ten-year-old Johannes Betzler lives with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) in their house in Germany. His father is supposedly away at war, fighting on the Italian front. Like most Christian boys his age, he’ s been indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth program, and it’s at Nazi boot camp that he gets the nickname “JoJo Rabbit” for failing to strangle a bunny. It’s too upsetting. But how can that be, especially when Hitler–Johannes’s imaginary friend/surrogate dad (played by the film’s writer/director)–is by his side, cheering him on with encouragements like “You’ve got this!” Later, after being injured by a grenade blast, JoJo returns home to focus on less dangerous assignments, like distributing Nazi propaganda. Whenever he’s at the house, however, his loving mother seems to be acting even more eccentric than usual; JoJo soon discovers a Jewish teenager named Elsa (a friend of his deceased sister) living in an upstairs crawl space.
Elsa threatens to kill JoJo if he tells anyone; JoJo is afraid of what the Nazis might do to his mother if they find out she’s been harboring a Jew. Neither wants Rosie to come to any harm; they reach an uneasy truce and keep their secret from Rosie. But JoJo remains a fervent believer in the Nazi cause and decides to take advantage of Elsa’s close proximity to study her Jewish traits and write an illustrated book about them. His starting point is what the Hitler Youth program taught him about Jewish people: demonic caricatures that are clearly absurd, but not to his young mind. Gradually he realizes she’s nothing like what the Nazis taught him and even begins to have a boyish crush on her. Then the war comes to an end, and Elsa’s fate briefly rests in his hands.
This is where the film and the novel part company in a big way, aside from the fact that, in the book, there’s no imaginary Hitler friend and Johannes (never called JoJo) is more severely injured–he’s disfigured. When the war ends, the novel is only half-way done, and the story turns even darker. I much preferred the film for that reason.
Filmmaker Taika Waititi and novelist Christine Leunens would seem to have little in common, except for living in New Zealand. Taika’s a native; Christine was born in the States and settled in New Zealand with her own family in 2006.
Leunens novel, Caging Skies, was first published in 2004, but Waititi only learned of it years later when his mother suggested he read it. By then, he’d written/directed a few movies, after beginning his career as a comedian and actor. (In the U.S., the other films he’s probably best known for writing/directing are Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok.) By all accounts, the bleakness of the book’s story didn’t seem like the kind he’d like to translate into a film, and yet. . . JoJo Rabbit was created as if by alchemy and became gold. A satire that’s serious and poignant as well as funny and uplifting.
Leunens is a fascinating artist as well. She was studying in Paris as a teen when she was spotted and offered a contract as a print model, later becoming the face of Givenchy and other designer names. A semester at Oxford sparked a keen interest in literature. She began writing novels and earned a Masters degree from Harvard.
The opening passage of her novel (told by Johannes as an adult looking back) strikes me as profound:
The great danger of lying is not that lies are untruth, and thus unreal, but that they become real in other people’s minds. They escape the liar’s grip like seeds let loose in the wind, sprouting a life of their own in the least expected places, until one day the liar finds himself contemplating a lonely but nonetheless healthy tree, grown off the side of a barren cliff. / from Caging Skies by Christine Leunens