I think my love of illustration and animation is well documented here on Thumbs – I like to think of myself as an animation connoisseur of sorts. So it was with great excitement that I went to a screening of Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story. Before I attended the screening, the name Ungerer was unfamiliar to me. When I looked up his work it became clear that his illustration style was a huge part of my childhood. His illustrations are like a mix of classic New Yorker strips and Rocky and Bullwinkle. Ungerer’s work has influenced a great deal of children’s books such as Where the Wild Thing Are; this film delves into the life of the man that created books such as The Three Robbers, and Moon Man.
The film began with a look at his childhood in Nazi Germany. He was born near the boarder of France and Germany in the Alsace region. The interesting thing about this region is that throughout history, ownership of the region shifted between Germany and France several times. During World War II the Alsace region was German territory and Ungerer admits to being incredibly influenced by the powerful imagery that Nazi propaganda posters had. Later in his life he would use the same techniques that he saw in Germany in his own more subversive works.
What is Tomi about to say? WHAT?
At the age of twenty-five, Ungerer moved to New York to start a new life as his German accent wasn’t welcome in the Alsace region after the war. He began working in marketing as an illustrator and was allowed to explore his style in that medium. It wasn’t until later -after a chance meeting with a publisher- that Ungerer began to work on children’s novels. He had quite a bit of success in the genre because of his interesting subject matter. One story in particular that garnered a lot of attention was Crictor, which was about an old lady with a pet boa constrictor. This particular book netted so much interest due to the unconventional pet the lady had. Most children’s books of the time dealt with very cuddly characters and very safe ones; painting a boa constrictor in a positive light was very new and different in children’s literature in the 50’s and Ungerer’s book won many awards.
Later in his career, Ungerer became very disillusioned with society (especially when it came to racial segregation). He began to create posters railing against the government and their treatment of their own people. This was when the latent influence of Nazi propaganda really began to surface in his works. He used much of the same imagery (and symbols) that the Nazi’s used as an effective way to get his point across. His pieces during that period have been highly praised as being great works of political dissent. It was also during this time that Ungerer began to delve into the world of S&M and began to explore himself as a sexual being. During that time he published an erotic art book titled Fornicon, which was an underground hit. Ungerer was able to keep his childrens’ novels and his erotica in two separate worlds until a conference on children’s literature in which an attendee questioned Ungerer about his work in erotica. With this knowledge in the public eye, all of Ungerer’s work was banned from American libraries and he was essentially excommunicated from the childrens’ publishing world. He left New York and stopped working for two decades, until he finally released a book called Flix.
Tomi Ungerer draws some conclusions.
The documentary itself is a beautifully shot affair, with sprinkles of Ungerer’s animated work set to the dialogue in the film. What I fell in love with in this film was the honest portrayal of Tomi Ungerer: he’s shown as a man with faults and anxieties – that he deals with on a daily basis. He’s not perfect and the film lets us know that. It also has a very even pace and a very clear story arc and message behind it. I particularly liked Ungerer’s candid discussion of death; he mentions that a lot of his work deals with death in some way and that he feels it is an important lesson for children to learn at an early age. He laughs, noting that death isn’t something that we should fear; we should welcome it, because it is the beginning of something completely new. He says that if there is a heaven than we have the most beautiful world to go to when we die; but if there is just nothing after we expire, he says, that may be even better. For if there is nothing after we die, then that means there is infinite space to fill with our own possibilities and creations. Just like a blank piece of paper, the nothingness is an invitation to create. I highly recommend Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story.