Tomi Ungerer makes a rare trip from Ireland to New York City for a new retrospective at The Drawing Center in SoHo. We’re taking advantage to host him at STF for this special screening of this “captivating” film profile that was a New York Times Critics’ Pick.
Tomi Ungerer’s career defies easy description. He rose to prominence in the late 1950s as the creator of acclaimed children’s books such as Crictor, Emile, and The Three Robbers. “I dare say, no one was as original,” says Maurice Sendak. “Tomi influenced everybody.” His creativity crossed multiple boundaries. In the 1960s, he drew iconic protest posters for the anti-war and civil rights movements. Fueled by his own desires, he created lavish books of erotica with titles like Fornicon. But these multiple identities couldn’t coexist. When his adult work came to the attention of the American Library Association in the early seventies, his children’s books were effectively banned. He relocated from New York City to more remote corners in Nova Scotia, then Ireland, where he maintains a low profile today.
Director Brad Bernstein performs a laudable act of rediscovery by tracking down Ungerer and coaxing him into this documentary. As we see on camera, it wasn’t easy. Ungerer is still haunted by the traumas of his childhood. Born in 1931 in the French region of Alsace, he suffered the death of his father at an early age and lived through the Nazi occupation. The memories are so painful for Ungerer to revisit that he initially resists Bernstein’s attempts at an interview.
Fortunately, Bernstein persevered, and what comes forth is an extraordinary artistic portrait. When Ungerer opens up, he speaks with a twinkle in his eye and a gift with language that’s equal to his drawing talents. His studio is a shrine to his fecund imagination, decorated with surrealist sculptures of his own design. The film brings his two-dimensional artwork to life with delightful animation. As for the explicit bondage drawings that once got him in trouble: by today’s standards they could serve as illustrations for Fifty Shades of Grey. But that doesn’t mean society has caught up with Ungerer. He’s still more far out than most of us will ever get.
– Thom Powers’ catalogue description from the Toronto International Film Festival