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'Jojo Rabbit': A Story of Redemption in the Face of Nazi Evil

February 4, 2020 | By

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies. 

Jojo Rabbit, written and directed by Taika Waititi, based on the novel Caging Skies, written by Christine Leunens. Content warning for the novel: Mature. The film is rated PG-13. Nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Scarlett Johansson), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design and Best Film Editing.

“In the biblical sense, 'Heil Hitler' had a connotation of 'saint, sacred.' We were enraged by the Catholics’ bad conduct; it was a threat, an insult to our beloved Fuhrer, a sacrilege.”

So begins Christine Leunens’ meticulously researched WWII tale, Caging Skies, told through the perspective of a 10-year old German boy named Johannes Betzler. His fawning over Adolf Hitler reveals that Nazi ideology has nearly full dominion over his malleable mind, if not for his sweet mother and grandmother, both committed Catholics.

Where the novel accurately characterizes the heart of the German Resistance (mostly orthodox Christians), the movie neglects it. In the film, version, Jojo Rabbit, we absorb some vague sense of the mother talking about love, hope and God, all the while quoting famed Bohemian poet, Rilke. I had the sense her poetic resource lacked the muscular Biblical foundations that helped the Maccabees resist the Greeks and early Christians find solace as they were tossed to the lions.

And for all of the film’s nifty smash cuts, a quick schoolroom sequence of swapping out of crucifixes in favor of propaganda posters would have better conveyed Leunens’ story. Instead, we see familiar tropes of book burnings and Hitler Youth performing calisthenics reminiscent of a Leni Riefenstahl documentary.

 The differences between novel and film, though, I largely attribute to the authors’ audiences. Leunens writes for adults, producing mostly a straight drama with moments of levity. Waititi depicts things satirically, employing somber scenes here and there, a movie made for a more contemporary diverse audience.

Also, Leunens writes an epic, with the Betzlers hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa, in their home for the duration of the war. As the younger Johannes and Elsa age over a period of six years, an odd romance simmers, resulting in a Stockholm Syndrome affair between the two by novel’s end. (Again, heed the content warning at this essay’s beginning, the novel is really not for kids.)

Waititi collapses time,  so we only see the last year of the war, displayed best in the Hitler Youth instructor (played by everyman Sam Rockwell) taking to drink as he sees the Nazi cause doomed. Johannes, nicknamed “Jojo” in the film, starts said year with an illogical resentment of Elsa upon finding her tucked away in a crawlspace.

Subsequent scenes slowly erode Jojo’s brainwash, and a real-life battle between his kind mother’s (played by Scarlett Johansson) influence and fascist nonsense ensues. Each side preaches their case to Jojo, but it isn’t until he meets a Jewish girl that he reluctantly admits his mother was always right. Jojo, not surprisingly develops his first crush on the older Elsa, but the age disparity between the two means his feelings for her become brotherly.

Waititi then ambitiously pulls off a difficult feat, showing that the worse instincts of man can be recognized for what they are and still be redeemed. In the most brilliant adaptation maneuver, Johannes’ inner thoughts that dominate the novel are visually manifested as imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi). It’s a bold choice, and it works.

Long considered sui generis, Hitler receives, ironically, I suppose, his most serious artistic consideration in satirical form. One’s initial emotional impulse might be shock, repulsion and hatred, but the viewer travels an arc and sees the dictator as a representation for what evil and sin ultimately are … sad and pathetic.

The way to combat the despair and hatred vomited at the last century’s middle mark comes from the theological virtues Jojo’s mother espouses. A clunky start aside, Jojo Rabbit offers one of the year’s most satisfying finishes: hope and love found within the lion’s den.

Image: Fox Searchlight

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