For anyone who grew up with Tomi Ungerer’s grotesque, bizarre, sublime children’s books in the late 1950s and early 1960s (“Crictor” & “The Three Robbers” among them), this film will be something of an eye opener. Did you ever wonder why those books disappeared off of the shelves of North American libraries in the early 1970s? Or how it was that Ungerer, among the most successful children’s book authors in the United States by 1965, slipped off of the radar, his books vanishing along with him? As a child of the late 1970s, I can attest to this absence—I never saw, nor did I ever hear about, any of his work. And yet, not ten years earlier, Ungerer had been the toast of the children’s book industry. Imagine: hailed by many of his contemporaries as a genius and vanguard figure—Maurice Sendak claims that “he influenced everybody”—and then: gone. What happened?
This documentary, exhaustively detailed and playfully presented, not only answers that question, but offers a wealth of food for thought about the relationship between art, the state, and individuality (not to mention sexuality, power, and creativity). Ungerer, raised under the Nazis in the decidedly complicated Franco-German milieu of Alsace, knew first-hand about the way kids respond to fear, to hatred, and he came to believe strongly in the need for children to confront, even embrace, these emotions. His children’s books were so surprising (and so affecting) because they never shied away from darkness. But, this is what also made his late-1960s antiwar and political posters so incendiary, too. And, it turns out, it was also what made his volumes of kink-themed erotica so deliciously transgressive. (See where this is going?) Thing was, few had figured out that it was the same guy who was doing these three things—erotica, antiwar posters, children’s books—simultaneously. And when they did figure it out: BOOM. Career over, books removed from libraries, name cut from the rolls of acceptable children’s book authors. It’s a hell of a story, and though the film drags in the final act (things got a lot less interesting while he was in his exile), it’s likely to be a crowd pleaser at this fest.