Tomi Ungerer, Enfant Terrible
BRAD BERNSTEIN with Williams Cole
Brad Bernstein is the director of Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, a documentary opening at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on June 14. While the Alsatian-born Tomi Ungerer might not be as famous—or infamous—in the United States as he is in Europe, his illustration style and perspective on childhood has had profound influence not only on graphic arts but also on leading children’s book authors including Maurice Sendak. In fact, the main reason why Ungerer’s books for young audiences were effectively shut out of the American market for many decades was that he also produced influential political and erotic art—an antithetical combination in our Puritanical culture.
I grew up with Ungerer’s art and met him many times because my father, William Cole (1919–2000), knew him well and wrote a number of children’s books that Ungerer illustrated. I sat down with Bernstein, who has also produced several successful documentary series for ESPN and other cable channels, earlier this year at a West Village café.
Williams Cole (Rail): So, the first time I went to Tomi’s house in Ireland—I’ll never forget it. It was the middle of the day when we got there, and he pulls out a bottle of whiskey. [Laughs.] I’m 16 and my brother’s 14 and my dad’s with us and we’re all taking shots of whiskey, and Tomi’s going around the table saying, “Okay, what kind of prejudices do you have, come on!” And I’m an idealistic communist teenager saying “I don’t have any prejudices, man!” and he’s all like “Bullshit! Have another shot of whiskey!” And I got completely wasted. [Laughs.]
Brad Bernstein: Your dad was cool with that?
Rail: Yeah, he must have just rolled with it. Their relationship went back to the ’50s, I think. Didn’t Tomi tell you some story of playing a gag on my father at some New York City party?
Bernstein: Yes, I think it was on the Upper East Side, and your father had to take the subway home. It was winter and Tomi thought it would be really funny to take your father’s jacket at the party, and without telling him, stitch or tape a swastika armband around the jacket’s arm. And, so the story goes, your father hopped on the subway with the jacket, and everyone was looking at him like he was a Nazi! That right there is quintessential Tomi. He’s still like that to this day and he’s about to be 81. He’s a provocateur of the first order.
Rail: Wow, that’s even more messed up because my dad fought in World War II in the Battle of the Bulge. He loved everyone except Germans and would always say “Fucking Nazis!” [Laughs.] I’m sure you had some experiences spending so much time with him.
Bernstein: Well, Tomi also did something to me that was actually worse. On the last day of the 15-day shoot we did with him at his home in Ireland, we were driving up to his property out in the middle of nowhere. There was one part where the road ends and suddenly there were 10 guys in army fatigues with what looked like machine guns, and we were like “What the fuck is going on?” We had a three-car convoy and they pulled up a car behind us so we couldn’t move. There were fields to the left and right and they whipped us out of the cars with force, threw us down and stole our wallets. We were screaming and I was like “Is this the I.R.A.?” And then they threw us in these vans and drove us up the hill blindfolded. When we stopped they took off our blindfolds and there was Tomi laughing and drinking a beer with his family. He had put his sons and their friends up to it. We were scared shitless! [Laughs.] And that was how we wrapped up our shoot with him in Ireland. And he filmed the whole thing.
Rail: That is messed up. On a serious note, how did you start to film?
Bernstein: Back in 2008 there was an article in the New York Times that said something like, Watch out, watch your children—that subversive is back! This was because Phaidon Press was republishing Tomi’s books and reintroducing him to America. Every anecdote that I read in the article just jumped off the page and I knew a real character was there. And once you start digging into the art work—that treasure trove of thousands, even tens of thousands, of images—it seems like every moment of his life has been covered through his images. Starting when he was 3, before the Nazis even arrived in Strasbourg, he recorded so much and was a witness to seminal events in European and American history. So you put all those things together and I knew it had the potential to be good.
Rail: So when you first met him, how would you describe him?
Bernstein: “Eccentric” probably doesn’t even do him justice. “Hyper-intellectual” probably is also fitting. “Child-like” and “innocent” I think as well.
Rail: Explain those youthful qualities.
Bernstein: He has like a child-like innocence—everything is new to him. We would walk down the street and he would look at like two clashing colors that he found to be the most amazing thing. You’d think he’d never seen a wall that clashed before. Everything he sees it seems he sees with fresh eyes, and I think that’s one of the things that makes him really unique.
Rail: Was there a moment where you thought, Okay, here’s a test? A point where he was just trying to provoke you in a way and try to see if you were offended by stuff?
Bernstein: Yep. We go to Strasbourg, arrive exhausted, and we’re shooting the next day. Tomi says, “I want you to come by so we can meet.” And we end up sharing about six bottles of wine. That was kind of his way of challenging us to get along with him in a sense—and we did! But the next morning we get there and he opens the door, and his teeth are all craggily and yellow and he’s so hung over but just blurts out, “Brad! My favorite Jew from New York!” And that’s how we started shooting right there. You can take that one of two ways, you can be offended if you have a stick up your ass, or you can say, “God, I love this guy.” And it’s hard not to like Tomi.
Rail: His provocative nature is a great thing because he’s always probing to see if somebody is uncomfortable in order to expose insecurities, I suppose.
Bernstein: Yeah, I liked that. I think he tries to push buttons. He did that in the ’60s until it basically lost him his publishing contract. I guess he went too far and he does have some regrets. It was at a conference of librarians in New York and people started questioning him about how someone could make both erotic art and children’s books. And as we show in the film, he really pissed a lot of folks off. It kind of froze him out of American publishing for a long time.
Rail: Talk a little about the influence that Tomi had on Maurice Sendak?
Bernstein: When we interviewed Sendak, he said, “I don’t know if Where the Wild Things Are would have ever happened without Tomi.” That right there is validation or justification enough for Tomi’s career and our film. I think there was this whole group of really interesting, intelligent, creative people back in the ’60s creating these really iconic children’s books. They were all different but they all had this similar, quirky sensibility.
Rail: How would you describe Tomi’s perspective on children?
Bernstein: That you shouldn’t hide anything from them, that you should show them reality. Like you said: you’re 16 and your brother is 14, you share a bottle of whiskey and he asks you what your prejudices are—and that’s Tomi in a nutshell. Don’t hide anything from children. One thing he always imparted to me throughout the interviews was, when you are teaching children something, don’t say it’s a tree, say what the tree is, say it’s an oak tree, or say it’s a maple, because they can absorb all that information. Don’t give them generalities. When I have children that will probably be the one thing I take from Tomi: children aren’t stupid. Give them the information, even if it’s bad. I think it’s a lesson that a lot of Americans have forgotten.