Saturday, 7 December 2013
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.