The Billy Wilder Blogathon: Emil and the Detectives (1931) and (1935)


Wilder, Kästner, Emil and the Detectives

For the Billy Wilder Blogathon I wanted to cover a film, in this case films, that occurred early in Wilder’s career. The reason is because while it’s nearly impossible to know film without having stumbled upon Wilder’s work (even by accident) I can’t claim any level of expertise. Furthermore, in blogathon scenarios I find that the more popular and well-known titles, in this case things like Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity or Judgment at Nuremberg would be snatched up right away.

I was fortunate, however, to stumble upon the fact that one of Wilder’s earliest cinematic endeavors was the first-ever film adaptation of Erich Kästner’s classic children’s novel Emil and the Detectives. This particular version of the film I was able to find on a region 2 DVD set complete with the 1935 British remake, which by extension and its eerie similarity to the German version present early works of his screenwriting prowess.

In many ways Emil and the Detectives offers quite an interesting case study in a few regards: first, it is a tale of such timelessness and universal qualities such that it has been filmed many times over and in many cultures, however, it also offers a glimpse into the zeitgeist of the borderland in time and politics that was the end of the Wiemar Republic and the rise of the Nazis in Germany.

Less than two years after the debut of this film Wilder joined one of the throngs of German Jews who left his homeland for a long and successful career in Hollywood. Conversely, Kästner, while exiled and banned from publishing for a time due to his pacifism would spend the war and reconstruction in Germany to better report on events. In a hallmark of Nazi hypocrisy it has been reported that Emil and the Detectives was spared from burning in 1933 as opposed to his other books even though it, too, caused a stir.

Emil and the Detectives (1931)

Emil und die Detektive (1931, Ufa)

My first exposure to this tale in anyway was the 1964 Walt Disney-produced version. Interestingly enough it ends up being rather a hybrid of the first two adaptations of the novel onto film. The actors are American but the story is German-set. As one would expect Disney is still Disney but much of the charm of the story still exists and it was one of my favorite film discoveries of 2012.

This tale is German and translated, but with a solid cast, very well-composed cinematography and an engaging storyline it works fairly well.

Clearly the standout the first time around was the visual-flair. The kids’ world with adults on the periphery is there, it’s adventurous and fun but a safe world. What Wilder and the team brought to the 1931 tale, that is likely also part of the fabric of the book, is that there is a naturalism to it, which when dealing with a crime and solving it means there is an inherent level of danger. With Disney some of the edge is taken off and its clubhouse-like. What is delightful to see the seeming opposites co-exist naturally.

What was written by the New York Herald seems well warranted and rings true to this day:

“The great simplicity in design and execution, the perfect naturalness and the move away from that particular sentimental hypocrisy and affectation, which often viewed as an inevitable prerequisite of cinematic oeuvre.”

Emil and the Detectives (1931, Ufa)

While sticking fairly close to the source Wilder taps into and accentuates some of the universal truths of this tale and storytelling for young people that this narrative highlights. First, there is the introduction of the audience to “another world.” Though not a fantasy world in any sense, but rather just the big city we are still viewing somewhere fairly unknown to the protagonist and perhaps to us as well. The creation and depiction of the outsider is perfectly played.

Something that Michael Rosen underscored that I had never quite put my finger on is the following:

“I’ve always felt that children’s books that last the best are those which engender a sense of yearning in the child: you want to be there, you want to be them, you want to be as clever or as lucky as them. For me Emil and the Detectives has this in bucketloads.”

I would go so far as to extend that notion to any great children’s literature read at any age. For example, I first read Harry Potter in my senior year of High School, if I’m not mistaken, and as I made my way through that series I had that sense of yearning also.

Now something else Disney did was to add a more fantastical feel to the tale. Whereas what was shocking and controversial about the book, and handled so well by the original film versions, was the naturalness of the setting in which these children find themselves. It isn’t a fantasy or a far off world, but rather these kids, much like those that lived at that time, much like you or I in real city with a very real problem. Perhaps it is that singular notion that has kept the story alive even through a period where the Nazis tried to rewrite German culture and Europe and the world wasn’t as willing to dabble in anything Teutonic.

Emil and the Detectives (1929)

The trajectory of the project is one that will look familiar. It’s not that unlike a hot literary project today. It was published in 1929 was an almost instant hit. In 1930 a version hit the German stage, the adaptation by Kästner himself. The film rights were then picked up by Ufa. Although, a relative unknown at this point Wilder ended up working on versions of the film with Kästner and others. The success of People on Sunday had allowed him to become a professional screenwriter that the studio would tap for such an important project as this one.

One thing that the 1931 Emil and the Detectives excels at is visual storytelling. It is one of the earliest and most important German sound films but it is not as stagebound as many early US talkies are. There are montages, moving shots around Berlin and a wondrous impressionistic dream sequence which is breathtaking. Suspense is built by watching, following or hiding and not dependent on dialogue exchanges for too much.

Film Quarterly in 1933 astutely stated that:

“It is remarkable that the cinema all but ignores the very considerable audience of children that supports it; and it is tragic that the few films specially made for children lead one to wish that they had been ignored.”

This a lead-in to praise for this film, and in many ways, that can still be true today what’s key is that that the filmic touches are left to the apt maneuvering of the crew behind the scenes and the kids for lack of a better term just have to be themselves and seem to be selected specifically to be able to “be” their part rather than “play” it.

Emil and the Detectives (1931, Ufa)

As the date on the Film Quarterly review indicates the original film version had quite a legacy. While sadly many of the young actors who took part in the film would end up dying on the front in World War II it did launch an acting career for three of its cast members Hans Richter, Martin Rickelt (then Baumann) and Inge Landgut.

Such was its continued success that it was showed on Christmas in 1937 as Wilder was in the US and Kästner was forbidden to write.

Emil and the Detectives (1935)

Emil and the Detectives (1935)

This film was recently rediscovered and restored. In the wonderful BFI booklet that accompanied the two-film release, where I sourced most of these quotes, is an essay called “Emil and the Detectives: A Faithful Remake” by Bryony Dixon that begins:

“Yet, despite being four years later, and with no hint in the publicity that this is essentially a remake of the German film, this is an exact replica with British cast and crew – and I do mean exact.”

Now there are differences and she goes on to cite them in detail in the last paragraph but what she states there is essentially true. And assertions that this film was cobbled together mainly from the German shooting script, or film, or stage play in English are likely correct.

However, the success of the film was similar in England. The original film played in the UK from April 1933 to January 1934; and a production of the play from Prague aired on BBC programme in 1934.

The oddity of the remake is that though it runs about 10 minutes shorter very little of that is put to good use. A lot of that is accomplished simply by tightening the dialogue scenes. Some expedited scenes work fine, but overall the suspense is lessened.

Emil and the Detectives (1935, BFI)

The change of venue from Berlin to London also does make a difference. Some of the vitality is robbed of it. It’s not just about the connotations each city brings with it, but the look and feel of it too. The Disney version which returns it there re-captured some of that.

However, it still works fairly well and even got fairly good notices. One that was included reads as follows:

“Although acted by juveniles for juveniles; the film is by no means limited in its appeal to young audiences; it should equally delight the elder members of the family.”

It does. What I was impressed by was how similar they were and that they both work well though the British one seemed to lack that suspense and grit, but it still quite enjoyable and it’s hard to find one remake so close to another – as Dixon rightly points out – that is not a foreign version shot simultaneously.

Closing Thoughts on Early Wilder

Emil and the Detectives (1931, Ufa)

When I was taking an introductory screenwriting course I remember our professor almost lamenting that we understandably were telling rather homey tales. The reason for this was that as writers having to only deal with the blank page there were no limitations. As writers the how things would happen and the cost of making them occur was really not our concern. One reason I’ve always recalled that is that is seems to be part of the path for many filmmakers. You seem to start with whatever rendition of a coming-of-age or first love tale strikes a chord with you.

One example would be in Bergman’s oeuvre: Very early on he had young romances like Port of Call or Summer Interlude or Summer with Monika and later on he’d revisit some of the themes in his early works with more sophistication as he did in Fanny and Alexander. Many will be more like Wilder than Kästner. They will tell a child’s tale when feeling there is something they can say with it, as opposed to having it be their raison d’être due to some philosophical slant.

Wilder has here a not dissimilar early career narrative to Bergman’s going from contributing to People on Sunday which was seen by many a slice-of-life of Berlin at the time. He then almost immediately moved on to sculpt another image of Berlin also real, but with flights of childish imagination that do not remove it from reality, but merely look at it in a different way.

Tales that tend to pass from generation to generation are usually either perfect dreams or perfect simulacrum. Emil and the Detectives, with Kästner’s blueprint, Wilder and the other filmmaker’s input may have blazed the trail for stories that balance the two giving an audience young and old an escape with a story that feels very real.

Emil and the Detectives (1931, Ufa)

It’s perhaps more interesting to see this film now as one can clearly see how earlier works influenced it and also how it intimated things to come in the careers of the makers, in the cinematic subgenre and the careers of those involved. Emil and the Detectives is a film that would’ve stood the test of time regardless but it gains additional significance as a beacon both of a bygone time and also for the career that Wilder had in store.



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  2. Aurora · June 22, 2014

    Rich in history and an interesting read. I love how you always push the envelope a bit by bringing to light these widely unknown gems. Kudos on that front and for submitting such a rich piece to the blogathon. I always learn when I stop in here, Bernardo!


  3. girlsdofilm · June 22, 2014

    Wonderful post, I love that the 1935 remake was only recently rediscovered. I’ve not actually seen the 1931 version, but I think I stumbled across an NYT review a few months ago, the consensus ‘was gunning for tears’, so I appreciated your more thoughtful review.
    Unrelated: I love the book cover you included, the design is so striking!

    • bernardovillela · June 22, 2014

      The Times does do great reviews when they feel like it. The short shrift some films get so all titles can be covered feels like a backhanded slight even if its not attempting to be.

      Relativistically all films are “gunning for tears” back then versus now. I think this may be a case when extemporaneous reviews are closer to the truth. It’s not sappy in my estimation. I’m a fairly soft touch and haven’t felt the pull in any version I’ve seen .

      There are definitely many virtues to both these versions.

      It is a great cover. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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