Tomi Ungerer is a graphic designer, illustrator and creator of children’s books. This documentary by Brad Bernstein charts his life through his artwork and sketches, interviews and photos. Interview footage with Ungerer himself makes the greatest contribution and the camera adores him. He possesses a face that is almost ‘Beckett like’ in that his features grow more interesting and beautiful the older he gets. On camera he is eloquent, expressive and mischievous.
Tomi Ungerer grew up in Nazi occupied France close to the German border. It was a stifling place to spend a childhood. He describes an existence of constant fear and anxiety and was witness to many horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime. These experiences left a deep impression and in the documentary we see how they influence his attitude to power and authority throughout his life. Liberation finally came but the French liberators were suspicious of their own countrymen who spoke French with a Germanic accent. Ungerer reached adulthood feeling unwelcome in his own country.
Tomi moved to New York at the age of 25 and quickly found work as a young illustrator. The age of television had not yet arrived. Illustrators were much in demand for advertising and magazine work. At the time it was the norm for every successful illustrator to also write and illustrate children’s books. Tomi however didn’t believe in patronizing children with bunny rabbits and fluffy creations. Tomi believed in frightening children. Unsurprisingly his darker storybooks met with some opposition initially! Nonetheless before long his unique books, featuring a parade of unlikely heroes such as bats, deadly snakes and monsters, were hugely popular.
Tomi was continuously outspoken and provocative. In a time of rapid social change in America he produced hard-hitting anti-war posters denouncing the American war in Vietnam. He used his artist talents to target racial segregation in America’s mid West. Around this time Ungerer also published several books of erotic sketches. When interviewed Ungerer makes no apologies for this side of his work and doesn’t shy away from discussing it. The publication of this erotic material was greeted at the time with outrage by those in the world of children’s books. Ultimately he was blacklisted and became unemployable in New York.
Tomi spent some bleak years in Novo Scotia with his new wife but his reluctance to raise children there prompted a move to Ireland. The documentary features a generous amount of footage from West Cork where Tomi made his home. There are heart achingly beautiful shots of the West Cork landscape in Winter sunshine. We see an elderly Tomi wandering the Sheep’s Head peninsula and the streets of Bantry town. Despite a great affinity for the Irish people and the western landscape, there is a sense of a man still in exile.
Tomi speaks very frankly throughout the documentary. He appears neither boastful or self-effacing but true to himself. He acknowledges and embraces his darker side and talks openly about the nightmares he experiences every night. He is remarkable for the lack of bitterness when he recounts the banning of his books. Interview footage is well interspersed with drawings and animated sketches of his work giving those of us unfamiliar with his work an opportunity to see his talent. Thankfully with the passage of time Urgerer’s reputation has been reconsidered. He is again recognised as a great graphic designer and illustrator as well as a celebrated children’s writer. This is a well-crafted and compelling documentary about a man who continues to live a fascinating life.
This documentary is opening in selected cinemas (including the IFI) on Dec 13th.
Review by Helen O’Leary