von Stefan Havlik
The freedom of fantasy – on the 25th anniversary of Michael Ende’s death
On September 1, 1995, the “Reigen seliger Geister” (“Circle of Blessed Spirits”) resounds in Munich’s Waldfriedhof: In Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera “Orpheus and Eurydice”, wondrous beings freely and easily welcome the entering Orpheus into their world. It was Michael Ende’s wish that this should be the last piece of music at the funeral service. According to legend, the musically gifted Orpheus succeeds in overcoming the actually insurmountable border between life and death in order to win back his beloved.
Michael Ende – born in Garmisch in 1929 – had soon become familiar with the limitations of this world: His father Edgar, who moved with the family to Munich, hoped for better chances for himself as a painter there, which at first turned out to be hopeful: Hardly had he arrived in Munich than he became a member of the “Munich Secession”, an association of important performing artists of that time. However, Edgar Ende’s impressive surrealist works, like the work of numerous German artists, experienced a sudden turn in promotion and appreciation when the National Socialists came to power in 1933: the landscapes full of faces, floating, fantastic figures and rooms full of unreal landscapes did not fit into the art image of the former postcard painter Adolf Hitler and his ideology; the “Völkischer Beobachter” (Völkischer Beobachter) ranked Edgar Ende among “a whole series of other dispensable people” in his artistic work by name. The child Michael Ende, however, as the son of the politically unpopular painter who was critically viewed by the regime, must learn that what is communicated within the family may not be spoken outside the home. The retreat into inwardness, into the circle of absolute familiarity – the experience of the big, small world of fantasy in his father’s studio, which had to be protected with great care – this will deeply mark him for his life.
Besides his parents, it is a neighbor – painter and communist – who fascinates him: Franz Reinhard, disfigured in the face after a suicide attempt, tells him and the neighbor children fairy tales and stories of his very own imagination. The appreciation, indeed the enthusiasm for the outwardly disfigured man, who is “squinted like a devil” as Ende will tell later and whose house is “painted up to the ceiling with strange fairy tale pictures”, is an important part of the sowing, from which later will ripen and blossom, which many children in Michael Ende’s works grow into a world of thought.
On November 9, 1935, six-year-old Michael Ende witnessed the funeral in Munich of the sixteen “blood witnesses” of National Socialism who had lost their lives 12 years earlier in the “Hitler coup” against the young republic and who were venerated from then on until 1945, as decreed by the state. The colossal staging of the powerful regime allows him to experience the “seductive pull of black magic” for the first time, as his biographer Birgit Dankert puts it. In the innermost part of Michael Ende, in the rooms of his still completely childlike imagination, the unfathomable dark is now found in all its fascination, in addition to the cheerful, happy and friendly.
The young Michael Ende receives a “position order” in 1945 – like so many of his generation, he has to defend the declining Reich in the so-called “Volkssturm” in the final battle, according to the regime’s ideas. The upbringing of his parents in the spirit of also artistic freedom, his personal environment, the courage of the adolescent – they lead to him tearing up the order and joining the “Bavarian Freedom Campaign” around Captain Rupprecht Gerngross, even at the risk of his life at that time. He does not want to serve the system, which took so much freedom from him in most of his previous life, in a hopeless final battle.
In 1948, the artist’s son was able to take his high school diploma, and his path led him to acting school and then to several smaller stages. His main interest is always writing: He wrote scripts for political cabarets, and his position as a film critic for the Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation provided him with a steady income for a few years.
Often later he told how the “famous first sentence” entered his life as an author: With “The country where Lukas the locomotive driver lived was only very small. “, which he typed into his typewriter, which, as he himself reports, was suddenly in his head, not only begins the novel “Jim Knopf and Lukas der Lokomotivführer”, but a work that has entertained entire generations of children – as a book, as a film, on the puppet stage – the work of one of the most successful authors of books for children and young people in the history of literature. Numerous first sentences of great literary works have become a memorial to readers, and the works behind these sentences very often became the foundations of the authors’ further careers: “When Gregor Samsa awoke from restless dreams one morning, he found himself in his bed transformed into a monstrous vermin. ” as the frightening beginning of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” or ” It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” with which George Orwell begins his famous work of the absolute surveillance state in “1984”, are only a few examples. “Who, if I screamed, heard me then from the angel orders” Rainer Maria Rilke begins his “Duineser Elegien” – and later describes himself that this sentence was suddenly in his head as he went up and down.
© bstrulak, despositphotos
In 1967, when the critique finally tore apart the tragicomedy “Die Spielverderber”, he was accused of “escapism” in the spirit of the time (“Anything that did not literally speak of political and social problems was considered irrelevant and was simply dismissed by the leading professional judges as “escape literature”,” he later formulated himself), he left Germany and moved to the Rome area. He had made his bitter experiences: “One may enter the literary salon from any door, from the prison door, from the madhouse door or from the brothel door.
You are only not allowed to come out of one door, out of the children’s room door,” said Ende bitterly. Nevertheless, he continues in his literary work and “Momo” is created, the story of a little girl in a plot landscape strongly inspired by his Italian environment of those years. This book becomes one of his most successful works and Ende himself is also involved in the film adaptation, even taking on a small supporting role himself. In “Momo” the initially intact world of the girl and her friends is opposed by the “grey gentlemen” as enemies, uniformed beings who rob time and freedom.
Continuing to live in Italy, he creates fantastic worlds in “The Neverending Story”, which are still in the minds of many young people and those who have long since grown up, again a fight of freedom and fantasy against restriction and darkness. The film adaptation, initially welcomed, is harshly rejected by the end as a finished strip of canvas. Because of the clear similarity of the protagonist Bastian Balthasar Bux to Michael Ende in Munich in the 1930s and 1940s, and once again – as in “Momo” – the thematization of freedom of (especially childlike) fantasy, also in the necessary defense against its suppression and destruction, the material of this work was probably much too precious for the author himself to want to see it – shortened, restricted and clearly brought into the picture – flattened on the cinema screen.
The fact that his books, which he writes for adults, never even come close to achieving the popularity of his works for children and young people remains a pain to him, and he never achieves the composure of Erich Kästner in this respect: Kästner, whose children’s books are just as clearly better known than his adult literature, had always emphasized that children are the more determined and honest critics and that the task of writing a children’s book that finds wide circulation should therefore be rated much higher. No less a person than the legendary literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki often remarked that he had never read Michael Ende, and in one of his last works (“The Satanarchaeolügenialkohöllische Wunschpunsch”) he set an unmistakable monument to him for this: the “Bücherörgele”, “a particularly hideous little monster”, “popularly known as the Klugscheißerchen or Korinthenkackerli. A harsh image that shows ultimate vulnerability – but ultimately remains harmless in the face of the “literary pope”, if one compares Martin Walser’s book “Death of a Critic” from 2002, which can also be understood as a reckoning with Reich-Ranicki.
Whoever stands at Michael Ende’s grave today, 25 years after his death, sees as a tomb a book from which figures of the worlds he created rise, as well as a small temple as a reminder of his second wife, the translator Mariko Sato, who had translated some of his works into Japanese. Michael Ende has succeeded in getting millions of children and young people around the globe to read and has given them an almost immeasurable expanse of worlds of fantasy.
© francofox, despositphotos
And yet, in all the joys and challenges of his life, he remained close to another German author whose works were just as vilified by the National Socialists as the impressive surrealisms from Edgar Ende’s studio: Erich Kästner, who died a good twenty years before Michael Ende, urgently warned against casting off his childhood “like an old hat”: “Only those who grow up and remain a child are human beings. Michael Ende has always remained a human being, and like Orpheus, he succeeded in crossing the border between two worlds again and again, inspiring many readers.
Birgit Dankert: “Michael Ende” (Lambert Schneider)
Interview Michael Endes with “Playboy”, 1983
Rainer Maria Rilke: Duineser Elegien (Mundus-Verlag)
Klaus Kordon: “Time is broken – Erich Kästner” (Beltz publishing house)
Peter Boccarius: “Michael Ende. The beginning of the story.” (Ullstein)