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A Model-Turned-Writer, a Child Nazi, and an Oscar-Winning Film

Author Christine Leunens on Nazi atrocities, the inspiration behind her book that was made into an Oscar-winning film, and fanaticism in today’s world.

By Manvi Pant

Twelve-year-old Johannes Betzler has the heart of a fanatic. He is devoted to his country’s megalomaniac Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler. His mind is blinded with a callow ambition to exclude all the ‘others’ – the Jews – because he has learnt in school that his own Aryan race is the purest. He aspires to shine at the Hitler Youth Camp, but life takes an unexpected turn when he gets grievously injured in a bombing. Disfigured and disheartened, he returns home to recuperate.

One day he finds his father mysteriously gone, and his mother acting strange. His world is upended when he learns about Elsa, a Jewish girl hidden in their house. Infuriated at his parents for betraying the Führer, he considers denouncing them. But, would he? Or, would he kill this girl instead?

Caging Skies (Hachette, Rs 499) by Christine Leunens – the book behind the award-winning Hollywood drama Jojo Rabbit – presents the fascinating, sadist workings of the mind of a complicated, dark character whose innocence has been stolen.

Speaking of the plot, Christine tells eShe, “In my twenties, I became friends with an elderly French woman in Paris, whose family had hidden a young Jewish man from Poland behind a wall in their apartment during the war. She and he spoke through the wall, and fell in love. After the war, they married, but ended up divorcing later as the trauma of having lost his entire family was too overwhelming. The premise of this true story stayed with me, but I didn’t want the story to be romantic.”

Christine Leunens (Photo: Amélie de Maupeou)

The 55-year-old mother of three, who has triple citizenship of the US, New Zealand and Belguim, goes on, “So, I thought of having the Jew in hiding be a young woman instead. And the one to discover her is a member of the Hitler Youth whose parents are in the Resistance. That’s where the plot seemed to take off on its own. I wanted to explore how such horrific events on a massive scale affected the different members of a family, not on the fields or anywhere big, but mainly in the small domestic realm.”

After so many years, Christine, who is an alumnus of Harvard University and holds a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington, feels that the world is starting to go backwards to some extent again.

“We are witnessing a resurgence in racism, fanaticism and anti-Semitism. People across the globe are facing huge uncertainty over economy, digital disruption, strained resources and a collapsing ecosystem. Some online platforms are actively spreading lies and hatred, or passively facilitating the process. I don’t believe such divisiveness as we are witnessing can start to heal again until these platforms are held accountable,” says the author.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, to an Italian mother and a Belgian father, Christine is a former model who has represented renowned fashion brands like Givenchy, Paco Rabanna, Nina Ricci to name a few, acted in television commercials, and authored three books.

Christine Leunens and Taika Waititi (Photo: Amélie de Maupeou)

Speaking of her transition from fashion world to literary world, she tells us, “I’m grateful for how modelling allowed me to travel across Europe, Africa and Asia, and to fund my studies and early writing. But to be honest, it was such a relief going from doing something where it was all about how I looked, to eliminating my outer self completely and having people engage with me solely on how I think or feel on the inside.”

In 2019, New Zealand filmmaker and actor Taika Waititi wrote and directed Jojo Rabbit based on Caging Skies. The film went on to receive six nominations at the 92nd Academy Awards and won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and Toronto International Film Festival’s People Choice Award.

First published in eShe’s May 2020 issue

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