When depicting the world and ideology of Nazi-Germany, the theme of childhood or the child-like figure is quite a well-used one. Key examples include Günter Grass’s Oskar Matzerath in The Tin Drum, to Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. The state of innocence implicit within childhood lets us appreciate how insidious and jarring the changes within society, ideology and political life were in World War Two. Especially considering the centrality of the Aryan family unit – its dominance, its perpetuation within the Nazi’s racial-hierarchical world-view. A grim example is in Hans-Peter Richter’s Friedrich, in which the course of a German-Jewish childhood, friendship slowly degrades and dissolves against the current of world war two, and the protagonist ends the novel meeting his best friend. He dies outside the communal air-raid shelter stretching out his hand for help.
Christine Leunen’s Caging Skies and Taika Waititi’s subsequent film adaptation JoJo Rabbit explore this theme of childhood in contrasting ways. Both tell the story of little Johannes (or Jojo), growing up in mid-war Austria. Jojo is a little ten-year-old growing up wanting to be an Aryan war hero until his plans are foiled by a terrible accident. In the book, this comes as a result of an air-raid, and in the film, it’s a hand-grenade at a Hitler Youth summer camp. Recuperating, he becomes aware of his mother’s secret activities as a resistance activist and her hiding of a Jewish girl (‘Elsa’) in the attic. The subsequent portion, in both the film and book, charts the relationship between JoJo and Elsa.
Both veer around exploring the absurd and comic in what would normally be an intensely disturbing and tragic state of affairs. In the film, Taika Waititi plays a quite camp and wacky Hitler who exists in the mind of Jojo. Playing the imaginary friend lets us see the absurdity and childish fanaticism that he has grown up with. Contrasting this with his love-hate relationship with Elsa after he stumbles across her in the attic, the two relationships chart his shifting allegiances. Throughout the film Jojo is gradually changing in his world-view, falling at last to his mother and Elsa’s constant appeals to sensibility, when they observe that: “You’re not a Nazi Jojo, you’re just a little boy who likes to dress up in uniforms.” Something to be remembered as he narrowly escapes a firing squad by slipping out of his uniform. The shared depiction of child-soldiers in both book and film provides one of the most harrowing examples of how childhood is perverted in a state of war.
Where the film diverges from the novel is in the treatment of the corruption of childhood. The film allows Jojo to at least gain awareness of his childhood, whereas the novel does not afford him that luxury. Here, we see him becoming the mouthpiece and conduit for the Nazi Party to tear the family apart. From echoing propaganda at the dinner table and causing arguments with his father – ‘“My father admitted that sometimes he forgot it was me he was arguing with—he felt more he was talking to ‘them’”, to causing multiple Gestapo investigations and his father’s death. The novel takes a darker turn. Jojo is left as the only person knowing Elsa’s secret existence. His love-hate relationship has taken on something of a strange obsession, and the two are trapped together in a web of lies- physically and figuratively. At first, he conceals the fact of the war ending and her existence to the outside world, she is trapped with him for decades. The two are stuck together, stunted socially and intellectually through the loss of their families and Nazi persecution, all they have is the wreck of their own lives.
There is an element of clunkiness within both works. Jojo Rabbit, with its aim at achieving ‘arthouse-comedy’ quirkiness, struggles to balance its use of light and darkness. Compared to his handling of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, adapting Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress to a suitable blend of pathos, light irony and comedy, Jojo Rabbit struggles to maintain this balance. Similarly, the sudden dark turn spins this reflection on childhood within a totalitarian state into something resembling a crime drama. Experiencing both in parallel is definitely to be recommended though. Gaining an insight into what has been borrowed, what’s been abandoned, what’s been radically changed – these differences are interesting to tease out. The good-natured humour and quirkiness of the film and the drama of the novel are quite fun to contrast, and both are impactful in their own right.