Saturday, 7 December 2013

Three Emils

Erich Kästner's 1928 masterpiece for juniors Emil and the Detectives wastn't on the radar in my own childhood, though so many contemporaries remember reading it and wanting to be one of the 100 Berlin boys who pursue crook Grundeis through the city streets (in much the same way, I imagine, as I so wanted to be one of Fagin's boys after seeing the musical film Oliver! and dreaming about that sequence where they cross the rickety 'bridge' singing 'We'll be back soon'). I think I'd heard the title, but it was only reading John Bridcut's Britten's Children and especially the nine pages he devotes to the 19-year-old composer's obsession that made me curious to see the 1931 film directed by Gerhard Lamprecht, with a screenplay by Billy (then still Billie) Wilder and an uncredited contribution by Emeric Pressburger.

Even that had to wait until I ordered up the BFI special edition and we watched it yesterday night, two days after going to see the joyous National Theatre adaptation by Carl Miller and directed by Bijan Sheibani. I was lucky enough to be allocated that to review by The Arts Desk, and felt a good deal more generously disposed towards it than some of the carpers.

Two write from lack of knowledge of the book (which I was sure to buy a copy of while I was there and read it later that evening). No, Michael Coveney, Kästner's original has no dark undertow (though the film certainly has in Fritz Rasp's rather alarming portrayal of the villainous Grundeis, The Man in the Bowler Hat). And it's no surprise to find the odiously opinionated Quentin Letts - whose one-star reviews always guarantee an adventurous show worth seeing, though he grudged this one three - vilifying the social commentary. 'The show's programme drones on about how Emil's single-parent mum is poor' (a reference to the excellent article by Miller on Kästner's relationship with his own troubled mother). 'Oh poverty, woe, alack. Yet all I remember from boyhood is that this was a ripping yarn'. NT production photo, like the third of the leads, by Marc Brenner - this one featuring Naomi Frederick as Ida and one of the three Emils, Daniel Patten.

Would it have hurt Letts to read again? One of the most charming things about the book is that some of Walter Trier's classic, indispensible illustrations have extra texts by Kästner underneath. The one below the drawing of Emil's mum Ida Tischbein washing a neighbour's hair runs:

Emil's father was a master plumber, but he died when Emil was five. So his mother became a hairdresser, trimming, washing and setting the hair of all the mothers and girls in her neighbourhood. She has to do all the housework as well, of course, and the washing and cooking. She is very fond of Emil and glad she can earn enough money for them both. Sometimes she sings lively songs. Sometimes she's ill. Then Emil does the cooking. He can fry eggs, and steak and onions too.

Kästner has a light touch with the social commentary, and usually lets actions speak louder than explanations, but here's one more observation he makes in the story proper:

You may possibly be thinking that this is a lot of fuss to make about seven pounds [140 marks in the original; the NT programme helpfully tells us that this would be about £360 today]. Well, perhaps it is, and people who earn a hundred or a thousand pounds a month certainly would not think twice about spending that amount. But, believe me, most people earn a great deal less than that, and to anyone who earns, say, thirty-five shillings a week, seven pounds seems a great deal of money to have saved. Plenty of people would think themselves millionaires if they had five pounds to spend, and in their wildest dreams could not imagine anyone actually possessing a million pounds.

It seems that for Mr Letts, the reverse is true: he simply thinks that poverty is the stuff of fiction (you ask what on earth I was doing reading the Daily Mail. The answer is that I was at my ma's for a night and a day on her emerging from hospital - praise be - and now that she's not dependent on me taking that loathsome rag to her - I flatly refuse to buy it - she's back to it again. And what a horror yesterday's edition was, with Jan Moir telling the woman who wants her dead husband's child that she shouldn't, an 'open letter' from the film critic to Daniel Radcliffe advising him to stop seeking out 'sordid' roles and a 'before and after' picture nonsense about the beauteous Nigella Lawson, making out that on day two of the admittedly rather compelling trial she's stressed and tired because she's caught with eyes and mouth downcast).

Anyway, enough of all that rubbish. I'd say that the play version is simply a third telling very different from the book and the film - which of course are already different from each other. The film creeps us out with Grundeis' leering, sinister behaviour on the train - no wonder Rolf Wenkhaus's Emil looks so stricken.

As he is right to be - good gracious, drugged sweets inducing a trippy dream (with brilliant special effects for 1931, which, remember, is very early on in the history of the Talkies). But the Berlin in which Emil wakes up is a lively rather than a scary place. Lamprecht was an experienced recorder of street life, and it shows. And of course all this has both charm and horror, when you think of how this everyday life was so shortly to be decimated. Other books by Kästner, a pacifist and freedom fighter, were burned in 1933, and though proscribed by the Nazis he stayed on in Berlin until the end of the war, moved to Munich and died in 1974. Clearly many more are in need of translation, above all his childhood autobiography and the ecologically-minded Animals' Conference outlined in this blog entry.

Young Wenkhaus was shot down on a German bomber expedition off the coast of Donegal in 1942. It's also heartbreaking to learn that Hans Albrecht Löhr, the nine-year-old playing 'little Tuesday', a character so many kids identified with during rehearsals for the play, died that same year on the Eastern Front at Saplatino. His mother Lotte went to see the first post-war performance of Emil at Berlin's Metropol - her son had been in the 1930 stage premiere, too - and wrote a rather moving letter to Kästner on his 64th birthday.

Lotte Löhr was, happily, incorrect in her assumption in the letter that all the other children had been killed in the war. Just a few weathered the storm.  Hans Richter, the funniest kid of the lot, 'The Flying Stag' (the freckly one on the right below) who delivers his message to Emil's granny with the utmost sense of self-mportance, appeared in more than 130 films before his retirement in 1984.

Inga Landgut, charming Pony Hütchen (also pictured above with Emil and Olga Engl's Granny) - who, alas, seems destined for the housewife's kitchen rather than the emancipated life promised in the National Theatre's much more girl-friendly version  - had as long a career as Richter if a less prolific one.

Ultimately, the film's tone and touch remain light (I'm not sure I'd read much other than suspense into the scene where Emil hides under the villain's hotel bed, though Bridcut does). Amazingly, it was copied action for action, with the same musical soundtrack but a Kent/London setting, in the 1935 English film, which I've yet to see on the BFI DVD - let's give it another week before making too much of a good thing. Meanwhile, long may the NT Emil run. It's a perfect seasonal treat for kids of all ages.


Willym said...

You do get all the "good" assignments don't you? It was just starting previews when we were in London - and since we had a busy schedule, you know lunch with charming critics etc, weren't able to squeeze it in. As always your review makes me green - mother's kitchen??? - with envy - and of course now I'm going to have to run after the movie.

Always leading me down paths!!!!!

David said...

Does it have childhood connotations for you, Will? I feel deprived of that one - though making up for lost time. And you won't regret buying the beautifully produced BFI edition, with its handsomely produced and informative little booklet - a perfect seasonal and yet non-Christmassy treat.

Susan Scheid said...

I second Willym about the paths! Actually, an initial step on this particular path should be arriving soon, as I ordered both Bridcut Britten DVDs recently--as the result of an earlier mention from you, needless to say. The Emil production you write about on TAD looks enormously attractive. I love your characterization of the Berlin scenes as "black-and-white expressionist Berlin projected on to a Constructivist background."

Of course, what makes things interesting, always, are these layers of reference and paths to pursue. I have yet another stack of books just bought today to prove it--part of which were inspired by a trip the The Drawing Center here that had a remarkable trove of original mss on scraps of paper by Emily Dickinson and Robert Walser. (The Drawing Center, by the way, has another exhibit on, also fascinating, for which there is a companion exhibit on at The Drawing Room in London right now.)

PS: I was able to take in The Great Beauty, as they call it here, while in NYC. Beautiful cinematography, and I appreciated it all the more as I've not been to Rome (love those fountains, which I remember so well from your photographs). I was fascinated by how much of the music I recognized, too (the "serious" v. the "party" side: Lang, Pärt, etc.). It worked very well, for the most part, I thought. I wasn't altogether along for the ruminative ride, though well done, no question about that. I believe the occasion for the rumination on a life less than well lived was the main character's 65th birthday. I am just coming up on that birthday next month, and couldn't help but think periodically throughout the film that age 65 was far too young for that!

Willym said...

No David it wasn't a book of my childhood - I tended more to Dumas and Stephenson. So I will have to take a look for the book also.

David said...

I don't know about The Drawing Center or The Drawing Room, Sue - would the latter be in the excellent British Library?

As for 65 being too premature for such rumination, I guess you've always had the core of purpose which our Roman hero, for all his articulate gifts, seemed to lack - isn't part of the point that he's a bit of an empty vessel with just enough consciousness to realise what he's missed out on?

Anyway, it's an elegant performance with something for everyone - our friend the Principessa Giulia (had to drop that in0 so loved the suits - and I'm still clinging on to a LoveFilm DVD, Il Divo, which J has already watched in which the same actor (Toni Servillo) plays the appalling Andreotti.

Willym - how very grown up. I'm glad to see that some of the classics I loved - Stig of the Dump, Charlotte's Web - are still in print.

Laurent said...

I remember vaguely the story of Emil, but not of my childhood, it might have been to foreign for French Canada where TinTin was all the rage. I wonder how it would play here or if it would be acceptable to the PC audiences in Canada. It might be banned for being too dark or too close to that era in Germany in the 30's.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Not wishing to burden your post by going yet further astray, so quickly: Agreed about the character portrayed, and you sum it up just right. Re The Drawing Room, so far as I know, it's a free-standing institution. Saving the best for last: We enjoyed our Der Rosenkav outing (for me, a horribly ill-timed head cold coming on notwithstanding). One thing particularly striking to me--and I'm not just saying this because he's a friend of yours--was Peter Rose's performance. On top of being entertaining, he actually humanized the old lech. I hope this isn't too horrifying to contemplate, but he reminded me a good bit of Zero Mostel (a favorite comic actor in my household growing up).

David said...

Well, Laurent, I was thinking more of the book, which is fairly sunny though with its feet planted in the reality of economic travail in late 1920s Berlin. The film IS darker, but only briefly (and, I repeat, I think Bridcut lays it on way too thick about the hotel bedroom scene). Interesting that it aired in a major London cinema and was a huge success before the British 'replica' came along in 1935.

Sue, my thoughts exactly about Freund Peter's Ochs. I don't think there's a better taker of the role among his generation - and now the classic Ochses are all due for retirement. Love the Zero Mostel ref - hadn't thought about it, and Peter might not like it, but you're quite right. Anyway, to be compared to the sublime Zero has to be a compliment.

At the risk of prolonging the conversation, how were your Octavian, Sophie and Marschallin? And Ed Gardner's conducting? He did it so well at English National Opera, like a born Straussian.

Catriona said...

Fascinating. I remember the book from my teens. It was our 'reader' in my second year of German. Later readers were a good bit darker. Sansibar oder der letzte Grund, anyone? I must read it again - maybe as a Christmas treat - and then seek out the film somehow. I doubt I'll get to the play.

Susan Scheid said...

David: I wish I had more experience, so could write something sensible, but here’s a stab at it. The singers were Martina Serafin as the Marschallin, Daniela Sindram as Octavian, Erin Morley as Sophie. I warmed to Serafin as the Marschallin; her voice has a burnished warmth, and she conveyed the right sense of resigned elegance in her acting. Sindram was entertaining in the comic parts, less convincing as the young lover somehow. I felt her voice, while lovely, wasn’t quite right for the part, though I can’t really describe what was missing. Morley was not the intended Sophie (can’t remember who was). She has an attractive voice and sang creditably, but didn’t stand out for me. All that said, the trio and duet at the end were gorgeous (though the first part of the duet was marred, if you can imagine(!), by what sounded like a couple off somewhere behind us arguing about whether to stay until the end). With conducting, I do find it difficult to determine which is the dancer and which the dance, if you know what I mean. The overture sounded a little thin to me, though I think that may have been a combination of the head cold and sitting in the stratosphere. The Ochs waltzes, in particular, sounded the best I remember them. You know, as I reflect on it, I think where the gesamtkunstwerk truly happened was around Ochs. Rose’s performance was acutely timed to the music, and the orchestra seemed to rise up to meet him.

David said...

Catriona - what a treat (and how I wish we'd had the option of German at my grammar school. When we were 12, some of us were put into the 'top' Latin class; middle-rangers did German, the rest Technical Drawing). Kaestner's Die Konferenz der Tiere sounds a treat and I might get it in German, since you've inspired me. As for the DVD, treat yourself to the BFI special - it's not expensive.

Sue - you always amaze me with spot on comments, and that about Peter and Gesamtkunstwerk seems so right. He's always so on the orchestral ball, not easy with all that parlando, and I'm sure Ed Gardner watched and responded, too - unlike Thielemann, to whose tune everyone has to dance. Which doesn't stop him being something of a conducting genius.

Howard Lane said...

"Sansibar oder der letzte Grund" - yes I remember that, as well as "Das kalte Licht", but not Emil. I didn't start German until year 4 and perhaps it would have been too juveniile then, but I wish I had read it. Too juvenile for our kids was also the verdict of one of Claire's colleagues who saw it, but I think it sounds great so maybe we should try to get along.

David said...

Perhaps it IS aimed at kids slightly younger than yours, Howard, but I fail to see how anyone of any age would fail to enjoy it. Friend Isabel says it's the best thing she's seen at the National all year, and she's seen most of the new productions. So go, take the lot of 'em (Carla included). Tx for kids are half price.