Holocaust Remembrance and the NeverEnding Story

musings on a film by Wolfgang Petersen

In early October, before the election but well into 2016 campaign season, I rewatched The NeverEnding Story, which I have seen many times. It hadn’t been very long since I’d last watched it. But the climate was different, so my eyes were too. Something clicked into place, and it became very, very obvious that I was watching a film by a director/screenwriter who was a German born during WWII (Wolfgang Petersen, fresh off Das Boot), adapting a book by a German author/screenwriter (Michael Ende) who was also a kid during WWII (not to mention the son of an artist classed as “degenerate” by the Nazi regime. When the Nazis tried to draft him in 1945, he was 14. He joined the resistance instead.)

In this context, the film is not a generic (though great) story about believing in your dreams and imagination beyond childhood. Instead, it’s a movie by an adult grappling with the aftermath of a society that tore itself apart with savage monstrosity, trying to figure out how one could possibly rebuild.

Consider the heartbreaking “look like big, good, strong hands” Rock Biter sequence. As children, and as teenagers, how many times must Petersen and Ende have asked their parents and respected adults, “how could you let this happen?” How could this nation that was so full of art and life and science and medicine and myth not be strong enough to save beloved friends from being blown away by nothing? All around Atreyu and the Rock Biter, the sky is full of oncoming lightning bolts — the insignia of the SS, the namesake of blitzkreig (lightning war). The only non-swastika symbol more associated with the Nazis is the black wolf, and look, here’s Gmork, servant of the power behind the Nothing.

The back end of Ende’s book is about Bastian, but Petersen doesn’t care about Bastian as anything but an audience stand-in (“They were with him when he took the book with the Auryn symbol on the cover.” That extra metalayer, as far as I know, doesn’t exist in the book.) The movie doesn’t waste time resolving Bastian’s relationship with his father or his difficulty balancing fantasy with the demands of real life (which is what the bulk of the book is devoted to). The plot point Petersen cares about is: A kid from outside this world that tore itself apart can ressurect the parts that are worth resurrecting, reimagine the parts that aren’t, and go from there.

This reading of the film resolves one of the things that always bothered me as a kid, which is Bastian running down the real-world bullies on the back of a luck dragon as a triumphant ending. I was a literal-minded child who was happy to pretend, but nevertheless committed to distinguishing between “real” and “not real.” (My family has schizophrenic tendencies, so being able to make this distinction was highly encouraged.) It seemed to me that although, sure, a made-up world could know about the real world, and someone from the real world could (symbolically or literally) alter a fantasy world, nobody from a book was ever going to jump out and swordfight my enemies. Is Bastian a superhero now? Can other people who have fantasies also summon magic into the real world, and if so, why has that not been present prior to this point in the story? (As I said, literal-minded.)

But it turns out that’s exactly, expressly what Petersen is saying. He’s saying the way you fight bullies in the real world — the way you stop Nazis — is by having more compelling fantasies than they do and making sure everybody can see that.

In support of Petersen’s extremely serious call to fantastical arms, it’s worth noting that the recent ressurection of the far right is pulling in PoMo gray-on-gray Gen-Xers, not Millenials — whose famed conscientiousness, academic researchers have suggested, may come from having grown up reading anti-racist propaganda in the form of Harry Potter.

Romie Stott is the pen name of the filmmaker Romie Faienza, a graduate of the London Film School. She is an editor emeritus of the Hugo-nominated Strange Horizons magazine. Barring minor copyedits and the addition of images, this originally appeared as an entry in her personal blog. She is republishing it in observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.