Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

Brad Bernstein’s mesmerizing documentary reintroduces the beloved illustrator and children’s book author whose ventures into vicious political satire and very kinky erotica ran afoul of American propriety, setting his career back by nearly a quarter century. Not that Tomi Ungerer ever really was a careerist; even his safer work involves stories about deliberately non-cuddly animals and imagery such as a girl being boiled alive over a fire of burning books. Self-evidently a master, Ungerer has a light touch with weighty absurdity. Here, Maurice Sendak is on record lauding him for craziness and bravery — for being “not respectable at all.” Ungerer grew up under Nazi occupation in the part of France that was and wasn’t also part of Germany. Discovering America first as land of opportunity and later of puritanical furore, he came, stayed for a productive while, and left. (Probably a turning point was that one kid-lit conference at which he advised colleagues, “If people didn’t fuck, you wouldn’t have any children, and without children you’d be out of work.”) In Bernstein’s vivid portrait, Ungerer does a lot of talking, and a lot of drawing. He says he’s driven by fear of life, but also that he’s insatiably curious. Then he says, “I am full of contradictions, and why shouldn’t I be?” He’s an outstanding artist and an outstanding documentary subject for the same reason: real humility but no fake shame.