The film has also dispensed with the disturbing postwar section of Leunens’ book – Johannes (nicknamed ‘‘Jojo’’ in the film) allows Elsa to believe Germany won the war, so she stays in hiding under his effective control – and there’s no sign of the protagonist’s injury (he loses half of one of his arms early in the novel). What’s more, the strong sexual aspect is absent.
But Leunens is phlegmatic about the changes. The film and book, she says, ‘‘share similar themes, characters, and plot’’, though the movie focuses in on Johannes as a ‘‘desperate to fit in’’ 10-year-old rather than following the book’s postwar plot trajectory.
‘‘The themes that I explore, Taika Waititi also explores: how teaching children a sense of ‘us and them’ breeds a sense of superiority and dehumanises what one perceives as ‘otherness’; and why this theme is relevant to today’s rise in the far right, how children and youth are indoctrinated into extremism and terrorism.’’
She adds: ‘‘Part of what I wanted to do in this novel was explore how children could be lied to and used as tools for political aims. However, for my characters to have depth, they have to be human and complex, have both qualities and flaws, do the right things at times, and at others, things they’ll regret having done and not necessarily know how to undo.’’
And she applauds what’s arguably Waititi’s boldest decision. ‘‘Taika brings Hitler out of Johannes’ head and lets the audience see him,’’ she says, ‘‘because he believes it’s important to laugh at tyrants and psychopaths, to break down the mythologies and barriers that protect them.’’
That question of how laughter can be used in the treatment of such serious subjects is one that seems especially live now that a new generation of writers is breaking old taboos, such as Shalom Auslander in Hope: A Tragedy (about a man who finds an elderly and foul-mouthed Anne Frank in his attic) and Timur Vermes in his best-selling comedy Look Who’s Back, about Hitler reappearing in modern Berlin. Those scabrous treatments have inflamed sensitivities, especially in Germany, and Leunens says Caging Skies ‘‘has been translated into about 20 languages, but a German publisher has yet to take it’’.
I wonder if – in an age where ‘‘cultural appropriation’’ is a hot topic of debate – Leunens has worried, as a Belgian/New Zealand writer, that in telling this story she might be trespassing on territory that isn’t hers to write about. Leunens has no hesitation there. She describes how her Belgian grandfather (the Flemish painter Gillaume Leunens) was detained in a German labour camp. Leunens’ Italian mother, too, witnessed atrocities in wartime southern Italy.
She had family members in Buchenwald; a great-uncle sent to Mauthausen for harbouring refugees. ‘‘He witnessed a teenage Jewish-Italian boy hanged in Mauthausen and a Nazi guard letting his German shepherd eat both his feet as he was hanging. He fell to his knees and began to pray, even though he could have been killed on the spot. The Nazis later injected petrol into his veins.’’
Trespass, then? ‘‘I feel the Nazis were the ones to trespass on the memories of family, friends, and countless others,’’ she says.
Caging Skies is published by John Murray at $22.99.
The Telegraph, London