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The Neverending Story (PG) – 1984
82% Rotten Tomatoes
The Neverending Story is perhaps one of the mostly fondly remembered movies of 80’s and 90’s kids youth, but it is without a doubt one of the most fucked up upon re-watching.
So, we start off with Major Dad telling his young son to get over his mother’s death, and man up. This kid is probably 8 years old? He’s clearly depressed and struggling with his feelings. The dad may be as well, but is doing the baby boomer stoicism thing that they feel is far superior but in actually leads to an early death caused by alcoholism and hypertension. Naturally, the sad kid also has no shortage of really dedicated bullies (perhaps because Major Dad named him Bastian Balthazar Bux), and so the daily walk to school becomes a gauntlet through hell.
Ducking into a mysterious bookstore that you would assume he’d have noticed before today, he snatches a book and hides in a criminally underused school attic. This is where the story grabs hold of you with its relatability – all of us losers and misfits found solace in fantasy worlds, whether they were books, fantasy games, or movies. The make believe world full of dragons and fairies and orcs was a lot safer and more comfortable than the real one, fraught with danger of a different kind. EXCEPT THIS ONE IS A HELLSCAPE OF HORROR AND CHAOS.
*Carrie Bradshaw voice* So I had to wonder… what kind of fucked up mind dragged this misery into existence? And how is it still so goddamn lovable?
Cue: Germany. Michael Ende wrote Die unedliche Geschichte in 1979. This is pre-Berlin Wall coming down. The English translation became available in 1983, and the movie we all know and love was made in 1984. Which is still pre-Berlin Wall coming down. SINCE WALLS ARE THE TALK OF THE FASCIST TOWN LATELY, let’s talk about this one for a while.
The Berlin Wall was a large, expensive symbol for the Cold War, which is a very looooong period of continual post-WWII political disagreement between western Europe (and “The West” in general) and eastern Europe. The generally agreed-upon date range is 1947-1991. That’s 45 years of tension and hatred. Unfortunately for Germany, Berlin was the line of demarcation between the two “blocs” or groups of allied countries, basically. After WWII, there were some countries disgusted by capitalism, and capitalist waste, and capitalist greed, and capitalist ego, etc. and with Hitler gone there was a power vacancy. So when the Nazi bully gets taken out, another will soon step in. We’ll call him Boris, and he is a hulking monster, with his back-up bully friends made up of everyone in his periphery. You can kind of understand their position – look on any map. The Soviet Union was HUGE. Russia is HUGE. It looks like it has more land mass than frigging Africa. If Boris is your neighbor, you’re pretty much going to do whatever keeps Boris from invading.
See a more detailed, sarcastic explanation of the Cold War here.
Okay, so the author of The Neverending Story wrote it right smack in the middle of this era when East and West Germany were separated (1961 -1989). You couldn’t just identify yourself as German, you had to also declare which side, and then be assigned with a lot of political baggage which may not be what you believe as an individual. A bad modern example of this is when white people ask non-white people where they’re from. They don’t really mean in what country were you born, they’re asking where do your ancestors hail from. The white person feels like this is a crucial piece of information that will help them understand the person of color, but it rarely has any bearing on the individual standing in front of them.
Within this context, you can kind of understand the father’s stoicism, and his push for his son to have the same stoicism. Germany saw a lot of tragedy during a 60 year span. That’s an entire life cycle – people were born in a war era and died before the cessation of Cold War hostilities in their homeland. There’s no way that doesn’t leave a mark on at least a couple of generations. And it gets worse if you factor in WWI ending only 20 years before WWII started. And things were bad before the official start of WWI. It’s not like these things just happen overnight. Nor does the end of war mean things go right back to normal. So these are three huge political and military events directly affecting Germany, it’s economy, it’s government, it’s outlook on fricking life. Can you blame someone for having a perspective where bad shit happens all the time and you just have to suck it up and move on because life is pain? I think we should all cut Major Dad some slack.
Any arts or literature produced in Germany during this time is pretty much earmarked as either West or East German, because the political and social context is important for understanding what you’re consuming. With that said, Ende was a West German. Not that it was all sunshine and flowers, but it was probably a hell of a lot better than the other side. In the 60’s, post WWII orphans were now adults and figuring how to create communities within a fractured country. It started out as finding your tribe; seeking out the community where you would belong. Later communities, or communes (ironic, right?) were more politically motivated and so became targets of frequent raids or shake-downs. Force begets force, and so eventually a lot of communes became havens for less than above-board military forces. I can imagine it felt to many people like the inexorable force of war would eventually roll over and crush you, no matter how hard you tried to stay out of its path.
We can see a lot of this helplessness and loneliness in Bastian. He’s a child; what we think of as an innocent without agency – with almost no control over what happens to him. He’s at an age where he’s aware but naive; he just wants everything to be better, but with no real idea of what better would even look like. He knows you can’t go back in time and bring your mother back, so how do you create for yourself a future where that wound has healed and you feel like a whole person again? As a kid, with no one willing to help you?
In Germany in the 70’s, a lot of the social focus was on squatters. Communal housing projects were organized for young homeless people, a lot of whom were orphans. This was not a government sanctioned thing (the government was busy), so these were namely large groups of people, mostly young, not all of them in poverty, that would go and squat in buildings, opening the way for street folks to join them, with the protection afforded by their larger numbers (police raids were common on squatters; you’d think they’d have other things to do). This was generally an artist thing to do – painters, musicians, poets; dreamers and romantics.
We see a lot of this romanticism and idealism in Bastian as well. He’s skipping school to read a stolen book with a flashlight during a thunderstorm in an attic, for crying out loud. And he’s extremely invested in Atreyu and his quest so save Fantasia from blinking out of existence. Fantasia has seen so much strife for such a long time, it’s nearly crippled under the weight of it, unable to carry on in a such a way (sound familiar?). The Nothing here can be seen as the endless grinding waste of War; the Childlike Empress is the human spirit, the dying light trying so hard to hold back The Nothing, by continuing to remember what is it that makes us worthwhile (her dumb name). So who is Atreyu? Atreyu to me has always represented the action of the individual – the choice we all face of whether to do good, or to lay down and do nothing while bad things happen. Bastian is our inner monologue, questioning our ability, our determination or worthiness. The rest of the cast of characters are the helps and hindrances that we all encounter on our way. Falkor the luckdragon – with his big dumb grin, reminding us of the pure joy of the wind on our faces; that moments of happiness during great tragedy are precious. Rock Biter – who has been overcome with grief and despair for the things he is powerless to fix. Artax – the spirit of steadfastness and loyalty, who bears the crippling punishment of the Sadness so that the self can carry on unhindered by it.
Ultimately, all is lost (nearly) when Bastian fails to act. I mean, Atreyu dies so what the actual fuck, Bastian. YOU HAD ONE JOB. FALKOR TOLD YOU NEVER TO GIVE UP, AND SO YOU FUCKING GAVE UP. GAAAAAAH. It’s a cautionary tale that the success of many can depend on a single player at any given moment; it’s not just about you. Sacrifices may be necessary. It also emphasizes the consequences of that old age: “evil prevails when good people do nothing.” Bastian didn’t literally fire the last shot, but the results are such that he may as well have.
Now here’s where fantasy takes over: the Childlike Empress gives Bastian a do-over. If he can overcome his damning personality flaw that allowed the destruction of all things, then all things can be restored. He must do what he failed to do earlier: he must believe. So he does, and then everything is fine, his bullies get roasted by a dog-dragon and his dad is nice to him (probably). The end.
Now, a lot of people argue that Bastian represents the childlike innocence of joy and freedom, and The Nothing represents the melancholy and social shackles that settle over adults. This is fine – I can definitely see that aspect at work in the movie. But after looking more deeply, part of me wonders if there’s not more to it, given the environment that Ende would have grown up in. Childhood would be short, and losses would be many. Adulthood would not have this dragged-out adolescence that we enjoy, but would likely require a constant calibration of loyalties and demands; always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Or maybe I’m just being dramatic.
LET’S TALK ABOUT SOMETHING FUN.
Falkor the luckdragon is arguably the most beloved character in the movie. He’s made of clouds and dreams and pearls and warmth, and is really probably the only thing we all remember fondly when we think back on this throat-stab of a movie. Ever encouraging, ever brave, ever accepting of all that is. He’s the unconditional love that keeps the human spirit buoyed and fresh.
Except… and maybe this is for the best, we don’t really know what happens to Falkor when the rest of Fantasia is destroyed. We don’t see him swallowed by the Nothing, but neither do we see him fly away to safety, back from whence he came. Obviously once Bastian fixes everything with his Tinkerbell magic, everything is put to rights, but it still would have rent our collective hearts in twain to have to see such a good and pure creature cease to exist without a trace. It’s too much. If it weren’t for the book, I would say that at this point in the preliminary viewing an executive would have stormed out and demanded the Falkor demise scene be cut, screaming “IT’S TOO FUCKING SAD, KEVIN.” (I don’t know who Kevin is.)
Here’s the best news: there is a place in Germany where you can frickin’ ride Falkor the luckdragon. It’s in Munich and it’s called Bavaria Filmstadt.
Some hilarious further reading to stem your sobbing:
Favorite quote: “Confronted by their true selves, most men run away screaming!” – Engywook