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From Kids' Books To Erotica, Tomi Ungerer's 'Far Out' Life.

The famed author and illustrator broke the rules of American children's literature in the '50s and '60s, but many Americans have never heard of him. A new documentary, Far Out Isn't Far Enough, looks at his life and work.


Other segments from the episode on July 1, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 1, 2013: Interview with Tomi Ungerer; Review of film "The Magic Flute."


July 1, 2013

Guest: Tomi Ungerer

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The children's books by my guest Tomi Ungerer aren't as famous in America today as those of his late friend Maurice Sendak, but Sendak has said that his own most famous book, "Where the Wild Things Are," was partly Ungerer: his energy, his spirit.

There's a new documentary about Tomi Ungerer called "Far Out Isn't Far Enough" that showcases his work and features interviews with him as well a with Sendak, his friend cartoonist Jules Feiffer and several children's book experts. Sendak says in the film that he's proud that he and Ungerer helped change the scene in America so that children were dealt with like the intelligent little animals we know they are.

Sendak and Ungerer had the same editor, Ursula Nordstrom, who let them break some of the rules of children's books with stories that many adults thought were too scary or mischievous for little children. Take Ungerer's book "The Mellops Strike Oil," published in 1958. The Mellops, a family of pigs, discover oil and resourcefully tap into it. But Mrs. Mellops is nearly burned alive in an oil fire.

Ungerer didn't mind scaring kids a little. He was exposed to terrifying scenes growing up under Nazi occupation in Alsace, on the French-German border. World War II also figured into another part of his career, designing anti-war posters during the war in Vietnam. In the early '70s, his career in America was virtually ended because he'd started publishing his erotic drawings with a lot of leather and bondage.

His children's books were virtually banned from libraries and taken out of print. So he left for Nova Scotia and a few years later moved to Ireland, where he lives today. He's since received many honors, including the world's top honor for children's book, the Hans Christian Anderson Award. Tomi Ungerer, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on the new movie about you.

So let's start with your first children's book, which you published in 1957, "The Mellops Go Flying." What were some of the worst things that happened to this family of pigs?

TOMI UNGERER: Well, originally when I came and was - and met Ursula Nordstrom, which became my editor for all my first books in Harper's, I had already a book about a family of pigs. But it was quite cruel because her dealings with the butcher was butchering pigs and all that, but she - it's Ursula Nordstrom who liked the characters of the father, mother and the four children.

And she says just do me another story with the same characters. So I just sat down and did my book.

GROSS: Were you surprised that many Americans thought that children's books shouldn't have anything that might scare children or upset them?

UNGERER: Well, I mean, that was, you know, that was my luck and Maurice Sendak's luck to have met Ursula Nordstrom. And she was absolutely reckless. She just didn't care about what people would say. And I must say that most of my children's books have fear elements, and - but I must say too, to balance this fact, that the children in my books are never scared.

This is a bit autobiographical. I was brought up in the war, and I was in the last (unintelligible) the Germans had over the Rhine in Alsace. And I must say I've seen the war just like an infantry soldier. It lasted - the battle raged for three months. But I don't really remember my mother being scared.

I think fear is an element which is instilled by the adults a lot of time. And I remember even in the bombings and whatever, I mean, we were always joking away. So I'm - I've always tried to put this kind of element in my picture books.

GROSS: I think, you know, as adults we try to protect children from being exposed to frightening things that they don't have to be exposed to. But for you being a child growing up in Alsace during World War II, no one could protect you from seeing the war. It was all around you. And you went to school from about the ages eight to 13, correct me if I'm wrong about that, under the Nazis because the Nazis invaded where you lived and took over.

So it must have been awfully hard not to be scared.

UNGERER: Well, I don't know. I mean, well, you know, to be scared is one thing, and excited is another one. I must say we were not really scared, but there was always the anxiety of being arrested by the Gestapo, which did - you know, once, I told in my book - I wrote several books of autobiography, you see.

And there's one in - I wrote one volume about the Nazi time. And as I said, I mean, it's - you see if you are in a battle, and you have bombs and bullets and shrapnel and everything is going up in the air, that's where you can be scared. But there's not really the - it doesn't compare to the anxiety, the anxiety, the anxiety, which is something much deeper, in a way.

You know, it sticks to you all the time. Are we going to make another day? Are we going to be arrested? Is so-and-so, are we going to die? Well, dying is not so much, I mean, but still, it's all the impending menace, you know, all the time, all the time, and that's anxiety. I find anxiety worse than fear.

GROSS: You have a book that's set during World War II called "Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear." This is about a Teddy bear during World War II, and the Teddy bear belongs to a Jewish boy who's taken away with a truckload of Jews. So that boy, David, gives Otto, the Teddy bear, to his friend Oscar. And Oscar often has to go to the bomb shelter because of the war. So he takes the Teddy bear with him in the bomb shelter and hugs him.

But one of the bombs explodes with such power that the Teddy bear is blown out of the bomb shelter and ends up on the street where there's a battle going on. An American soldier picks up the Teddy bear and hugs it to his chest. And the soldier's hit by a bullet, but the Teddy bear absorbs most of the impact.

But the soldier is still wounded, and the soldier takes the Teddy bear to the hospital, and that's just the beginning of the Teddy bear's adventures. And it's such an interesting, powerful book about the war, told through the perspective of a Teddy bear. And the pictures in it, I mean, some of them are harrowing. You see like dead soldiers on the street who are bleeding. There's a bus that's been bombed, that's overturned on its side. There's fires in the background and buildings that have been bombed out.

This is 1999 when you did this, so it's - you know, the arena of children's books has been opened up. But I can't say I've seen a children's book that depicts war as graphically as this one.

UNGERER: Well, I think there should be more of them because when you've seen this kind of horror, you say I don't want to see that kind of thing happening again. Now when you look at the sketches I did as a child then, it is - it would be just a decal of what I did then later on. And when I did all those scenes of war, I didn't have to check up in the book how a Sherman tank looks like or how, you know, all the equipment, all the uniforms, everything is strictly just the way I've seen it and how I witnessed it.

So I would say this is - it's very good of you to bring this up because that book, more than other books or children's books, was certainly more autobiographical than any other one.

GROSS: You were encouraged to draw during World War II when the Nazis took over Alsace, where you lived. And you were told that the Fuhrer needed artists. Do you think that teachers were told to basically try to create a new generation of propaganda artists for Hitler?

UNGERER: Oh yeah, absolutely. I'm totally - I've been totally brainwashed by the Nazis. And when you look at my children drawings, you'll find them in two categories: the ones I did at one, which were - as I always said, you know, in my autobiography, I say, you know, I was a German at school, I was French at home and with my friends in the streets we were Alsatians.

And I must say that my drawings were the French ones I did at home, but then at school I had to draw propaganda pictures, you know, and that's where I learned you cannot beat the system, really. When it's really hammering on you, you just, if they tell you to do a thing of the Fuhrer, you draw the Fuhrer, and...

GROSS: So some of your earliest drawings had to be of Adolf Hitler. That was your assignment?

UNGERER: Yes, yes and all kind of propaganda, you know, the propaganda, the heroes on the front and all that. But I must say already in those days I always slipped some really funny element. I remember I had to do a portrait of the Fuhrer, you know, giving a speech, and I put a (unintelligible) - a stein of beer on this thing, but the Fuhrer didn't drink.

But still, you know, nobody ever objected. That's what - you know, the thing is no matter what tyranny, you always can get away maybe not with murder but with a few other things. And your mind, you know, your mind is always free. Nobody can take away your mind.

We were brought up to become soldiers, you know, like - as I said, they would say don't think. The Fuhrer thinks for you. But then it was reassuring, too, because I was not a good pupil. And then the teachers would say to me, as, Terry, you mentioned it already, and he says don't worry, the Fuhrer needs artists and all that.

I mean, the whole thing was geared to win over, to win over the children away from their parents. We were even offered a sum of money if we would - and we could decide, not the parents, if we would want to leave the family, leave your parents and go in a special Nazi, you know, a Nazi boarding school.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tomi Ungerer, who is most famous for his children's books. And there's a new documentary about him, which is called "Far Out Isn't Far Enough." So Tomi Ungerer, can I ask you, our executive producer, who grew up with your books, has a few questions for you about the Mellops books, the books about the family of pigs.

Can I put him on mic so he can directly ask you those questions?

UNGERER: Absolutely.

GROSS: Great. So this is Danny Miller, our very long-term executive producer. Here we go. Hang on.


UNGERER: Yes, hello, hello.

MILLER: So nice to meet you. One of the things I loved about the Mellops books is that they always had really cool family projects, like building airplanes or building an oil derrick or the machine to distill petrol from grass. And I was wondering, since your father died when you were young, was Mr. Mellops important to you as a father who led his sons in all these really fun, grownup projects?

UNGERER: Well, it's funny because we were four children at home, and maybe it was kind of a way of having the father I didn't have, I guess. But, you know, when you start a book like this, you just do the book, and it's only later on that you - you know what I mean - the background or the reasons for some of the ideas - it could have been just because I've been brought up - I was much younger.

My brothers and sisters were eight, nine and 10 years older than I was, and they were always mentioning and talking about my father and all the things they were doing and he was doing. And so maybe I re-created their situation, you know, up to my hidden fantasies or possibly my frustrations. It's - well anyway, that could be the reason.

MILLER: You know, another thing I really loved about your books, and I have to say that my father would read the books to me, my father was an architect, and I just thought you maybe were - kind of had an affinity for engineering, for building things, like the oil derrick or the airplane, yeah.

UNGERER: Oh, I do. No, I do. I've designed buildings. You know, in Germany I've designed a kindergarten shaped in the form of a cat, and the children go into the mouth every morning. And on the second floor was - they can slide down through the tail.


UNGERER: So no - you see, as I was saying before, you know, I didn't go to college. I didn't study. So I could always be interested in anything I wanted to be, whether it was geology, botany, architecture or anything. So, I mean, but I've always been fascinated by architecture in my own way.

MILLER: At the end of all the Mellops books, mom, Mrs. Mellops, is baking a cake. And all the family projects were exclusively boy stuff. And did you ever think that maybe you could have gotten Mrs. Mellops out of the kitchen and maybe more involved in some of the cool projects?

UNGERER: Yes, yes later on, but in the beginning - you know, and I can understand, I've been approached by the feminists, why should the mother stay at home and all the kids go have the adventure. But my mother was like that. She always let us go away, go and do all our adventures. I went and left and trekked all the way to Iceland, crossed the Iron Curtain and all the things, incredible adventures. And my mother would just let me go.

It's incredible, how - the amount of freedom she gave us. And - but then later on, I had one thing, when she became the mayor of the village. She went into politics, so - but anyway...


MILLER: I just want to thank you for your books that I know a lot of people grew up with and enjoyed, and I'm so glad they're back in print, and thank you for speaking with us.

UNGERER: Oh, thank you. Really I appreciate that.

GROSS: Hang on, here's Terry.

So Danny, thanks for dropping in and asking those questions, and believe it or not, I actually couldn't hear the answers because I gave you my headphones.


UNGERER: Oh, oh, I said horrible things about you.

GROSS: Did you?

UNGERER: I wouldn't want you to...

GROSS: I was afraid of that.

UNGERER: No, no, no, no, don't find out, oh my God.

GROSS: So there's a new documentary about Tomi Ungerer called "Far Out Isn't Far Enough." I'll continue the interview with him in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tomi Ungerer, who won the world's top honor for children's books, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, in 1998. When he started writing and illustrating children's books in the late '50s, he brought a new kind of mischief and danger to the genre that not all adults approved of. His books were popular and acclaimed in the U.S., until the early '70s, after he started publishing his adult erotic illustrations, with bondage and leather. That virtually killed his career in the States for many years. He now lives in Ireland. He grew up during World War II, under Nazi occupation in Alsace.

So let's skip ahead a little bit. We were talking about how you grew up in Alsace on the French-German border, a contested territory, that went and forth between the French and Germans. When you were born it was French. During World War II, the Germans invaded and took it over for several years. And that was your childhood. Then you started reading American magazines, fell in love with the America that they presented and you decided to move to New York. You were kind of broke. I think you had $60 in your pocket. You've said you started calling the art directors of the magazines that you liked. And I think when you first got to America, the early work you did was kind of advertising, like billboards, posters...

UNGERER: Oh, I did a lot. I did a lot of things. As I said, it was a land of opportunity. It was really incredible how everybody was so nice. In those days, you could call any art director or editor just like this, and his - and the secretary would give you an appointment, and you could come there and show your work. And I remember I arrived, I arrived with $60 in my pocket, so I didn't have a portfolio and I was carrying just my drawings, you know, under my arms. And one day it started raining and I went in a pharmacy. It was on 43rd Street and Broadway, and I think the pharmacy is still there, and I asked for a box - you see - for my drawings. So they gave me a box, which created quite a sensation, because it was a wholesale box for condoms.

GROSS: Yes, Trojan condoms, is what you said in the documentary.



GROSS: So you're walking around with this huge box saying Trojans on it.

UNGERER: So everywhere I would come with that box. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

UNGERER: It was Trojan. So everybody was so nice. And not only did they give me work, but then one art director would get on the phone and call the other ones and say listen, I got this young French guy here. Why don't you come, he's got some interesting stuff and all that and I was really liked. It was the same way whether I worked for magazines, whether I worked for advertising. It was incredible how quickly I was able to settle down and work, and I was enough of a success to be able to buy a house in New York three or four years later - just to give you an idea. And I'm very grateful for that. Really, New York, really, there's no city in my life I've ever loved as much as New York.

GROSS: So you come to America. You start doing ads and then you start doing children's books. Your children's books are successful. But then you also start doing political posters...

UNGERER: Oh yeah.

GROSS: ...and posters like - I remember this ad campaign for the Village Voice: Expect the Unexpected. And you did like surreal illustrations to accompany that. And then you did antiwar posters. One of them is an illustration of President Johnson bending over and feeding rat poison to a dove, a dove being the symbol of peace. And the caption reads: Peace Talks.

So did people kind of connect the dots between the guy who was doing these anti-war posters and these surreal political posters with the same guy who was doing children's books?

UNGERER: I don't know in the beginning, you know, because people in the children's books who are all specialized in children's books, people in the world of satire are - but I think most people realized that I had my hands in just so many elements. And then came my erotic books too later on. My erotic satire and all that.

GROSS: Yes. I was going to ask you about that.


UNGERER: And, so for many people it was always a bit I find difficult because, you know, when you meet somebody you want to pinpoint down him. You want to be say, you know, like most artists carry on the same styles throughout their lives, and for me it would be just so boring. I couldn't do that, with the greatest respect. I mean for me every book is a challenge and every book has to be done in a - I have to try something new. I have to try something different, and I just have to go on. And I am, as I said already, I'm too restless and too curious.

GROSS: So you mentioned erotica. So you started doing erotica illustrations in books, including a lot of bondage poses. And then the trouble started. So first of all, how did you - by trouble I mean when people realize that the guy doing these great kids' books was also doing these, you know, bondage erotica illustrations. It wasn't a good thing for your kids' books. Your books were pulled from libraries. I mean you were - you ended up leaving the country.

UNGERER: I was banned. They were all my books, including even the children books were banned from American libraries. And that was for me the end, and that's when I left because, you know, and I came back to Europe.

GROSS: Why did you want to head in that direction? I mean had you always secretly drawn stuff like this...

UNGERER: Because I...

GROSS: ... or did you always want to?

UNGERER: No, because I think it's really, it's really it's a matter of, in a way, of freedom. I think people are allowed to do anything they want as long as they don't hurt anyone, and as long as in mutual consent and all that. And actually, the erotic aspect of my life developed quite later in life and I've been very curious. You know, I lived in Hamburg in a bordello and wrote a book about that of what was happening there and all the dominas(ph) and all. There's wonderful women that do the kind of works that no psychiatrist would do. And I'm always fascinated by finding the human element behind everything, so.

GROSS: So, I'm thinking in my mind. I'm comparing the erotic, you know, posters that you did of, like, you know, women in leather being whipped and so on, you know, very bondage.

UNGERER: Well...

GROSS: Wait. Wait. I'm comparing that with what happened to Maurice Sendak. When he did his book "In the Night Kitchen," which is a, you know, just a wonderful...

UNGERER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...children's book. That book was banned from some libraries in America because in one scene there is a little baby with a little baby penis, and because that baby is naked...

UNGERER: Oh, my god.

GROSS: know, the book was pulled. So he suffered for that. So I'm just thinking...

UNGERER: Well, I...

GROSS: in an environment where that isn't acceptable, to think of what you were doing, I could only imagine.

UNGERER: Well, I would say that it's more kind of an American puritan, you know, way of banning. See, we don't, I don't have - I never had any problems like this in France or Germany or anywhere else. But in America, don't forget, "No Kiss for Mother," was - got the DUD Award, which is the award, they say, for the worst children book of the year, you know.

GROSS: The worst children's book of the year? In America, it got that award?

UNGERER: Yeah. Yeah. It's called the DUD Award.

GROSS: Oh, DUD Award.



UNGERER: Yeah. DUD Award.


UNGERER: I always broke every possible taboo, and so did Maurice. Not that we did it on purpose. Well, I'm agent provocateur by profession. All right. But I don't automatically try to scandalize; it's just in me. And I just think that, you know, children love practical jokes. Children are no idiots. They know, as I said in my movie, children know where children are coming from, where babies are coming from. What they don't know is where adults are coming from. We don't respect children's minds enough, and they can well handle, you know, all my little side jokes in my books.

GROSS: You mentioned your book "No Kiss for Mother." I love the drawings in this book because it's about a cat - a family of cats. And I really love it when cats are dressed as people and do things like people. So like there's scenes of like cats in human clothes, like they're at the dinner table, they're in a restaurant, the cats are at school. There's a cat who's driving a taxi, a cats brushing his teeth at a, you know, at the bathroom sink. Cats are wearing glasses.


GROSS: So the illustrations in this book are wonderful. What - and the book is about a cat who hates being kissed by his mother and hates all the terms of endearment that she uses for him.


GROSS: Why was this book - which was published in '74 - why was this book given the DUD of the Year Award?

UNGERER: Well, because a lot of the gruesome details - like the father works in a rats processing factory, and he reads comic books in the toilet. You're not supposed to read - and then he smokes cigars and things like this. You know, and this is a book that breaks all the taboos. But actually - it's more - that book is really Maurice Sendak's fault, because Maurice did a very sweet book for (unintelligible) called "A Kiss for Little Bear." It was "A Kiss for Little Bear." And my answer for "A Kiss to Little Bear" was "No Kiss For Mother."

GROSS: (unintelligible)

UNGERER: Because my mother, you see, my mother loved me much too much and she poured her affection in the most sloppy ways, I mean over my cheeks and everywhere. And I couldn't stand to be kissed or even touched by my mother. She really overdid it. So that is, there again, is a book where I can tell it's absolutely autobiographical, absolutely autobiographical. I hated to be kissed.

GROSS: So that's funny. So this book wouldn't have existed without one of Maurice Sendak's books. And Maurice Sendak says that "Where the Wild Things Are," his most famous book, wouldn't have existed without your earlier work, because you broke certain children's literature taboos as he ended up doing too.


GROSS: I have a question about Maurice for you. I know you were good friends. And late in his life, he came out and told people that he was gay. It was something he couldn't possibly have done early in his career because I don't think America would have tolerated somebody who was gay writing children's books. There was so much homophobia. I mean they're still is, but it was much worse then.

UNGERER: Oh, god. I know. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. (Foreign language spoken).

GROSS: Did you know?

UNGERER: I know. I know. I remember.

GROSS: Did you know that he was gay and did you have to keep that secret?

UNGERER: Well, I knew it right away. Oh yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

UNGERER: Well, but, you see, we spent a lot of time together. So I mean we were very close. We were really in this children books thing. Well, there were others who kind of like Shel Silverstein. I brought Shel Silverstein to Ursula Nordstom.

GROSS: Really?

UNGERER: I mean we were really kind of a small group of people to determined to change things, you know, all those kind of little sweetie, little nimble pimby(ph), mushy fushy, little children's books. No. No. No. I mean, but as I said, Maurice wouldn't have any of his problem, or me, in Europe because it's just a different way of looking at things. Now England would be like America, I would say. It's Anglo-Saxon, in a way. Anglo-Saxon, I presume.

GROSS: My guest is children's book author Tomi Ungerer. There's a new documentary about him called "Far out Isn't Far Enough." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tomi Ungerer, who is most famous for his award-winning children's books. There's a new documentary about him called "Far out Isn't Far Enough." And in that we also learn about his erotic drawings and about his life growing up as a child on the French-German border, when it was taken over by the Nazis.

So you left America because your erotica and your political artwork basically were making you persona non grata.

UNGERER: Yeah. Exactly.

GROSS: So you move to Nova Scotia for two years, and then you moved to Ireland, which is where you live now. When did you leave the United States?

UNGERER: In '71.

GROSS: Mm-hmm..


GROSS: And, well, so now that so many years have elapsed since then, and you've gone back to children's books and those books have been published - some of those books have been published here. Some of your books have been republished here and new additions. Do you meet people who grew up with your children's books and then later found out about your erotica? And if so, what's their reaction?

UNGERER: Well look here, I mean in Europe I have absolutely no problem. I did an erotic book which is based on the "Kama Sutra." But instead of human beings, the positions are taken up by frogs, you know?


UNGERER: And people come to me and say, you know, I was brought up with you. It's called the "Kama Sutra of Frogs." And as I say, you know, I was 13 years old and I saved money to buy your "Kama Sutra." I was brought up with your books. It's no problem. You know, I've been ambassador at the European Council for Childhood and Education and my eroticism has never bothered anyone.

GROSS: In the documentary about you, you say that you still have nightmares many nights and in those nightmares you're often being arrested - which was your big fear when you were growing up, that the Germans would arrest you or your mother.

UNGERER: Yeah. Yeah. We were arrested once by the Gestapo. But my - that's in my book, and my mother was brilliant. She was a great comedian. You see, the Nazis arrived and within three - after three months it was forbidden to speak a word of French. You could be arrested for a bonjour or just a merci. Just any word in French you could be immediately arrested. And I had to learn German in three months - which shows you that with a knife on your, you know, on your neck, you can learn a language in three months. It's my brother who taught me.

But my mother insisted on speaking French at home and somebody overheard her and she was denounced and then we had to go to the Gestapo. And before we went, she dressed - she was a beautiful woman - and then typically, you see, she was no fear. She took me along because she figured it's a good thing to have a young son of the Fuehrer, you know, along. And winking her eyes, she said to me - I have to translate in French - you'll see they are all idiots. (French spoken). So we were there and my mother comes instead of the (unintelligible) Fuehrer in his big office and salutes, Heil Hitler. The guy was already impressed, and then he says well, ma'am, you know you are in - Madame Ungerer, you are in a state of immediate because you've been reported speaking French. And my mother said, speaking French? Yes, we speak French, oh (unintelligible) Fuehrer. And I will keep on speaking French, and I'll tell you why. After the final victory, if nobody speaks French anymore, how is our Fuehrer going to administrate France if we don't have any Germans speaking French? And electrified, the officer came up, came in front of my mother, gave her a hand kiss, clicked his heels and said, at last I meet a true daughter of the Fuehrer. Madame Ungerer, Frau Ungerer, I give you the exceptional permission to speak French with your children. So that shows you that when you're clever you can get away with it.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And I wish you well. Be well.

UNGERER: Well, and you too. I have a feeling you deserve it.

GROSS: Well, that's so nice of you to say.

UNGERER: It was very nice.


UNGERER: No. No. It was very nice.

GROSS: Tomi Ungerer spoke to us from Ireland where he now lives. The new documentary about him is called "Far Out Isn't Far Enough." You can see some of his children's book illustrations and one of his anti-war posters on our website, FRESH

Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews Kenneth Branagh's new film adaptation of the Mozart opera "The Magic Flute."

This is FRESH AIR.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: The English actor and film director, Kenneth Branagh, has directed a film interpretation of Mozart's opera, "The Magic Flute." Branagh's version is set on a World War I battlefield - with mixed results, according to our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz.


LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Mozart's "The Magic Flute," the last opera he lived to complete, has some of his most sublime and sublimely comic music. Technically, it's more of a musical comedy, what in German is called a Singspiel, a play with songs and spoken dialogue. I was excited to learn that it was filmed by Kenneth Branagh, whose Shakespeare movies I really admire. Mozart's mixture of fairy tale and high morality presents a great opportunity for a filmmaker. In 1975, Ingmar Bergman released a version for Swedish television that has become a beloved classic.

Branagh's film was shown at festivals in 2006, then played in Europe. It's now finally been screened here briefly in theaters and is available on American DVD. Why has it taken so long to get here? Now that I've seen it, I think I know.

"The Magic Flute" tells the story of Pamina, the beautiful daughter of the Queen of the Night who has been abducted by the high priest Sarastro. The queen persuades the brave Tamino to find her. But Sarastro is actually the good guy, rescuing Pamina from the clutches of her evil mother. The most appealing character is the queen's earthy bird-catcher, Papageno, who joins Tamino on his quest.

The main problem with the film is that Branagh updates the setting to a World War I battlefield. It's clever to turn the bird-catcher into a soldier who uses birds to test for poison gas. But the tone is all wrong. This grimly literalistic relocation conflicts with both the fantasy elements of the music and with Mozart's profound spirituality. It's bizarre to have the Queen of the Night singing her flamboyant coloratura entrance aria standing on a tank.


LYUBOV PETROVA: (as Queen of the Night) (Singing in Foreign Language)

SCHWARTZ: There's one marvelous moment when the screen fills with a creepy image of singing sandbags warning about fate. But the best parts of the film take place away from the battlefield, as when Papageno, desperate to find a girlfriend, rushes toward a pair of luscious, disembodied red lips. And the scene between Papageno and Papagena, the girl of his dreams, has real charm.


BENJAMIN JAY DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing) Pop, pop, pop.

SILVIA MOI: (as Papagena) (Singing) Pop, pop, pop.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing) Pop, pop, pop, pop.

MOI: (as Papagena) (Singing) Pop, pop, pop, pop.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing)Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.

MOI: Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing)Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.

MOI: (as Papagena) (Singing) Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing) Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, Papagena.

MOI: (as Papageno) (Singing) Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop Papageno.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing) Do my tired old eyes deceive me?

MOI: (as Papageno) (Singing) No. I'm here. I say, believe me.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing) Say you'll be my wife forever.

MOI: (as Papagena) (Singing) Say you'll be my handsome lover.

SILVIA MOI AND BENJAMIN JAY DAVIS: (as Papagena and Papageno) (Singing) My handsome lover. My handsome lover.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing)Oh, I'm sure she'll be my bride.

MOI: (as Papagena) (Singing) Oh, might I be your bride?

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing) Let me hold you. Let me kiss you.

MOI: (as Papagena) (Singing) Let me hold you. Let me kiss you.

DAVIS: (as Papagena and Papageno) (Singing) (Unintelligible) with chicks inside. Chicks inside. Chicks inside. Chicks inside. Congratulations. Chicks inside. I cannot tell (unintelligible) with chicks inside.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing) This isn't what the game...

SCHWARTZ: For the most part, this "Magic Flute" would be better just as the soundtrack. Then at least you could read along with Stephen Fry's operatic and slangy English translation - since there are no subtitles and the diction of the singers isn't consistently comprehensible.

It's a good young cast, except for the role of Pamino. Amy Carson makes a very pretty, almost pre-Raphaelite heroine. But this is one of the most radiantly beautiful soprano roles ever written, and Carson's singing voice is pinched and so often off pitch, it's painful. On the other hand, the best-known singer in the film, the celebrated bass Rene Pape, a famous Sarastro, sings this role magnificently, with the profoundest dignity and warmth.

Here's his first scene with Tamino, the tenor, Joseph Kaiser.


JOSEPH KAISER: (as Tamino) (Singing) Where is she? I won't be denied. Please God, don't tell me it's too late.

RENE PAPE: (as Sarastro) (Singing) It is forbidden, dearest child. I am not free to tell you yet.

KAISER: (as Tamino) (Singing) You speak in riddles. Tell me straight.

PAPE: (as Sarastro) (Singing) I cannot help you. Watch and wait.

KAISER: (as Tamino) (Singing) When can I hope to have some answers?

PAPE: (as Sarastro) (Singing) In time, my friend you'll understand. In time you'll join our sacred pact.

SCHWARTZ: It doesn't matter that in this movie Pape plays a doctor in a field hospital rather than a high priest. His noble performance, James Conlon's vibrant conducting and the superb Chamber Orchestra of Europe are the main reasons for Mozart lovers to put themselves through this disappointing effort.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is the senior editor of classical music for the Web journal, New York Arts. He teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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