An adult’s view: It is no surprise that Erich Kastner’s Emil and the Detectives was so hated by the Nazis that it was one of those singled out for burning.
This exciting adventure story references all the major tensions in pre-war Weimar Germany, and comes down firmly on the side of the oppressed against the state. In one scene, most of the passengers on a tram turn on the young Emil, believing that, because he doesn’t have the fare, he must be a criminal and possibly Jewish.
At another point a police sergeant assaults a child he accuses of being a “cosmopolitan” communist. A debate takes place and one of the children retorts that “the law protects the rich from the poor”.
Pony, one of the main characters, is a girl who boxes, speaks to adults as if they are equals and lets boys ride on the handlebars of her bike. Quite advanced for 1929!
Unemployment is rapidly rising and the hyper-inflation of the early 1920’s casts a long shadow. Emil’s mother is a working widow who never quite earns enough to get by. At the same time, the jazz and cabaret scene and the cafes and streets of Berlin are exploding with life and optimism. There’s a thirst for political ideas.
By 1928, 147 different political newspapers were produced across Berlin. One of the children is a newspaper seller who weaves into the story her commentary on the day’s events.
By 1929 the revolution had been defeated but there was still the hope that the Nazis could be beaten. The children expel one of their number from the detective group after he expresses racist views. Although the divisions between Social Democrats and Communists eventually led to the victory of fascism, Kastner’s little tale reminds us how unity on our side was possible.
A young person’s view: This is a funny story that involves children in Berlin chasing after a thief. Emil gets on a train to Berlin when a man called Mr Snow gives him a piece of apple. It makes him fall asleep so that Mr Snow can steal the 140 marks that Emil is carrying. Emil gets off at the wrong stop to get his money back.
He meets a boy called Toots and finds his cousin Pony the Hat. Together they organise a group of detectives and chase after Mr Snow. They finally catch him with the help of the only adult that likes them and Mr Snow gets arrested.
Emil gets his money back. He is also rewarded as Mr Snow robbed the bank as well. Emil decides to share his reward with his new friends.
The acting is brilliant. My favorite character is Pony the Hat. She likes bike riding and she is a rebel. One of the children says the moral of the story is “don’t trust anyone.” But I think the moral is you have to come together to succeed.
I enjoyed the fact that the play was interactive – I managed to go home with 20 old German Marks that had dropped from the ceiling at the end of the play. Awesome!
A quietly evocative film
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