Didn't like JOJO RABBIT? Give CAGING SKIES a shot
It's hard to take the temperature of the collective room when it comes to films. It doesn't matter how celebrated a movie is, there is a backlash for the film somewhere - a group of people who just didn't like it. And they are usually very outspoken about their dislike for the film. I'm reminded of a FAR SIDE comic strip detailing the international meeting of the "Didn't like DANCES WITH WOLVES society."
JOJO RABBIT is a perfect example. I quite enjoyed the film, about a young German boy in World War II who learns how to not hate. The movie deftly balanced the silly and sincere. It was funny, touching, and featured a bravo performance from the young lead, Roman Griffin Davis. It works with a lot of the same themes that director Taika Waititi had historically dealt with, such as the troubled relationship with father figures - both real and imaginary - and the turbulent path to manhood that all boys take.
JOJO RABBIT was nominated (and won) Oscars! It appeared on many critics' best of the year list! It was a celebrated movie and yet there are many people who will loudly tell you it was complete trash if you give them the chance.
But hey, I get it. Not every movie is going to be for everybody. That's just the way the celluloid cookie crumbles. But, if you are one of those people who didn't like JOJO RABBIT, I encourage you to check out CAGED SKIES, the novel it was adapted from.
Christine Leunens's 2004 novel is also about a World War II-era German boy learning to not be a Nazi. CAGING SKIES, though, is a much more tragic story, dealing at its core with toxic relationships and using the war as a backdrop for a very human story about the way people trap other people in an effort to emotionally own them.
The novel follows Johannes Betzler through nearly a decade of his life, beginning as a young, impressionable boy in Nazi-occupied Vienna who joins the Hitler Youth and is taken in by the group's smart uniforms and charismatic leader. Things get complicated, however, when he falls in love with Elsa, the Jewish girl his parents are hiding in the walls. As his family falls to the ravages of the war, soon it is just Johannes and Elsa, depending on each other for life's necessities. While Waititi's movie climaxed with the end of World War II, Leunen's uses this event as a launching point for the second half of her novel. After the Americans take Vienna, Johannes goes to shocking steps to keep that information from Elsa, chaining her to him through an extreme example of gaslighting so that she will not leave him.
Nazis suck, that's obvious. CAGING SKIES makes a pretty damning argument against masculinity too. Johannes, the book's narrator, gives example after example for why it's necessary to keep Elsa hiding from an enemy that has long since been dispatched but when it comes down to it. He feeds her chocolate to fatten her up so that nobody else will find her attractive. Elsa, in turn, plays mind games with Johannes, perhaps knowing the truth behind her predicament but being too scared to question it and choosing instead to take out her anger on the little boy who considers himself her protector.
Johannes, after all, is just a scared little boy chasing after what he believes to be love. He and Elsa torture each other - psychologically and physically - and yet Johannes believes he's found true happiness in the midst of total horror.
CAGING SKIES is a wonderful book - with fantastic detail about the reconstruction period in Vienna following Germany's defeat in World War II. The characters are sketched with such passion and fury that reading the book will leave readers with a pit in your stomach. If they can fight through the emotional turbulence, though, they'll find one of the most maddeningly truthful portrayals of toxic relationships put to pen.
Waititi made a wholly different film out of the source material, adding a character in an imaginary friend for Johannes - Adolph Hitler - and giving the film a heavy dose of comedic levity. CAGING SKIES is not a funny book. If I had read it before watching JOJO RABBIT, I would have pegged Ang Lee or Sam Mendes as the filmmaker to more faithfully adapt the material over Waititi any day of the week.
That said, it's wonderful that two pieces of art can exist that tell a similar story and contain similar messages of "Fuck Nazis" and "Don't be dicks, men."