Cult Cinema: Die Unendliche Geschichte - The German Release of The Neverending Story

Andrew reviews and gives us some history behind the original German version of The Neverending Story.

No Hobbits here..."
Most viewers familiar with the 1984 children’s family film The NeverEnding Story know it as that enchanting hunk of fantasy nostalgia with the young warrior Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), a giant flying white dragon named Falkor, rock giants, the Childlike Empress, the City of Fantasia, and that synth pop song by Limahl with Giorgio Moroder.  Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Michael Ende, the film tells the story of a bullied introvert named Bastian (Barrett Oliver) who dives deep into a fantasy novel entitled The NeverEnding Story which he finds himself more deeply involved in than he realizes, affecting the outcome of the story itself.  In the era of 80s children fantasies, among them emerged Legend, Labyrinth, Return to Oz, The Dark Crystal, Mio in the Land of Faraway, Willow, and of course, The NeverEnding Story.  Unlike the aforementioned titles, The NeverEnding Story managed to spawn 2 sequels, one of which managed to garner a mainstream theatrical release and large budget. 

But what you may not be aware of is that The NeverEnding Story was originally a German production filmed in English for German audiences.  The first English effort of acclaimed director Wolfgang Petersen and at the time, the most expensive film produced outside of the United States, Die unendliche Geschichte was, like Cloud Atlas, a European attempt at a worldwide blockbuster designed to propel Germany as a major force to be reckoned with in mainstream cinema.  While Bastian’s scenes were filmed in Vancouver, Canada, a majority of Die unendliche Geschichte was filmed in Germany and had a bilingual crew made of English and German speaking people.  A difficult and technically ambitious epic with major set pieces and complex animatronic effects, Die unendliche Geschichte was notable for Noah Hathaway’s very real brushes with death due to technical mishaps caused by the special effects unit.  During his horseback riding training prior to filming, he was thrown off the horse which then stepped on him.  During the infamous ‘Swamp of Sadness’ sequence, Hathaway’s leg was caught in the elevator which was to lower his horse into the swamp to simulate sinking, and after being pulled underwater his unconscious body was brought back to the surface.  If that wasn’t enough, Hathaway almost lost his eye during Atreyu’s battle with the killer wolf Gmork when the animatronic prop nearly poked his eye out with one of its protruding sharp claws, forcing the filmmakers to only use the one take that’s in the finished film.  Despite all the chaos and danger on set, Die unendliche Geschichte proved to be a major success in Germany, breaking box office records in its mainland at the time.

"I am not Teenage nor am I a mutant."
Incidentally, Michael Ende fought mid-production to have the name of the film changed once he realized Petersen’s film wasn’t going to encompass the entirety of his book, but in fact stopped halfway into it.  After a failed lawsuit to alter the name, he withdrew his name from the credits.  Upon American distribution, the film was drastically reedited, with a few seconds trimmed from nearly every shot to move things along, totaling in about 10 minutes of footage removed or rearranged in some way.  Most obvious in difference is the score, which was originally a completely classical score by Klaus Doldinger of the German jazz group Passport before techno-pop artist Giorgio Moroder added compositions of his own.  Most notably different is the introduction, which was changed from an ominous black screen and foreboding classical instrumentation to a bright and colorful cloudscape and the now-famous Limahl song The NeverEnding Story.  Although Germany presented its own distinct version of the film, the Limahl song and accompanying music video were still used to promote the film and was included on the soundtrack despite not being present in the film!  While not drastically different from what people are used to seeing overall, save for some particular shots of the cover of the novel Bastian is reading from German to English, there are some moments where Doldinger’s score is more effective and operatic.  Notably the scene where Atreyu’s horse sinks into the Swamp of Sadness, Doldinger provided a thundering score of tragedy while Moroder tends toward a single cue gradually growing louder.

In recent years, interest in restoring Die unendliche Geschichte to its original inception and in Germany a full digital restoration of the film to its original cut was undertaken prior to a special edition DVD and Blu-Ray release.  Although Warner Brothers recently released a 30th Anniversary Edition of the film on Blu-Ray replete with a commentary by Wolfgang Petersen and making-of documentary, it still doesn’t include the original German release version, forcing some curious consumers to import the German version in order to decide for themselves which is the real version.  Some German viewers have in fact attested they prefer the reedited US version to the original cut, but that’s probably due in large part to the bright and colorful Limahl song, which was tacked on and is somewhat misrepresentative of just how dark and frightening Die unendliche Geschichte really gets in certain scenes.  

"Look. Giant rock people. Eat them, Falkor.
They taste like fluffy kibble."
Regarded by some as the children’s movie that gave children nightmares, Die unendliche Geschichte is more than just another piece of 80s childish nostalgia.  Despite some dated animatronic effects and questionable child acting probably due to language barriers during filming, Die unendliche Geschichte took the children’s film seriously and tried to impart real difficult experiences that shape our upbringing into adulthood, and how with imagination and passion, we can triumph over personal heartbreak and trauma.  There’s a reason Bastian is seen riding atop Falkor proudly as Die unendliche Geschichte draws towards its uplifting conclusion.  After being beaten down for so long, there’s no place to go but up high in the sky!

-Andrew Kotwicki