Director: Gerhard Lamprecht
Screenplay: Billie Wilder, Paul Franck, Emeric Pressburger
Producers: Gunther Stapenhorst
Starring: Rolf Wenkhaus, Fritz Rasp, Olga Engl
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 69 mins
The BFI recently released a series of films by the Children’s Film Foundation entitled Weird Adventures. The set was noteworthy for including late period works by well-known British writers and directors, including Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger whose final collaboration, The Boy Who Turned Yellow, was trumpeted as one of the set’s major attractions. Unfortunately, while it no doubt brought back cosy memories for some, the Weird Adventures set had a depressing feeling of career-end doldrums. Certainly the Powell/Pressburger film had no sense of recaptured past glories or anything remotely close.
The BFI’s latest release, however, is quite the opposite. Emil and the Detectives is an adaptation of the popular German children’s book made in 1931, making it one of the first German sound films. Directed by the relatively unknown Gerhard Lamprecht, the film boasts impressive credentials with a screenplay none other than master writer/director Billy Wilder (here credited as Billie Wilder) and, once again, Emeric Pressburger (uncredited). But unlike the Children’s Film Foundation films, Emil and the Detectives catches these major talents at a very early stage in their careers, before they had directed any of their well-known classics. The film itself, while utterly delightful, is hardly a forgotten classic but rather than evoking a melancholy air of careers trundling to a close it catches all the excitement of fresh, promising new talents taking their first steps.
Emil and the Detectives tells the simple but engaging story of young Emil who, on his way to Berlin to visit his granny, has a large sum of money stolen by a sinister, bowler-hatted stranger. As he keeps the man under close surveillance, Emil inadvertently acquires the aid of a gang of self-styled detectives who, through ingenuity and persistence, bring the stranger to justice. It’s a simple story but one with enormous appeal for children, since it eschews grandiose feats of daring in favour of a ramshackle organisation whose dogged determination is believably within realistic reach for any child with a group of friends and an imagination.
In its slim 69 minutes, the film keeps moving forward at an exciting pace, with plenty of laughs and diversions into other childhood concerns along the way. Wilder and Pressburger’s script is amusing but not a lot of focus is put on the dialogue that would be so crucial to their later creations. Instead, Emil and the Detectives is at its best when it is behaving like a silent film. The opening sequence, in which Emil and his friends amusingly deface a statue, is beautifully, wordlessly done. Likewise, the most memorable moments later in the film are all done with little to no dialogue; Emil’s adventure in the hotel, the pursuit of the Man in the Bowler Hat by hundreds of children, who mirror his every about-face. But the best and most notable sequence is Emil’s nightmare where, succumbing to the effects of a drugged sweet, he watches the villainous stranger contort into an even more menacing figure before his very eyes, leading Emil to leap into the air and hang from an immense emergency stop chord. This is all reminiscent of early German expressionist cinema and it’s a daring move to make so early in the film when the adventure has not even got underway yet. The success of these scenes must be attributed to Lamprecht, whose direction reaches beyond the workmanlike style of the rest of the film. It’s a great sequence to kickstart the adventure and Lamprecht wisely refuses to return to any other such flourishes, focusing on keeping the pace fast once the chase begins.
The characterisation in Emil and the Detectives is thin but effective. The Detectives themselves are mainly stock types, such as the bespectacled boffin, the cheeky wag, the oddball fantasist and the scruffy put-upon loser. The latter character, Deinstag, is one of the best parts of the film. When assigning roles for the adventure, this poor, unkempt little lad gets stuck with the job of dispatches, which finds him stuck for the whole film waiting by the telephone to make notes of what the other urchins are up to. We regularly cut back to Dienstag’s isolated misery as he struggles against boredom and encroaching sleep to make ultimately superfluous recordings. These amusing asides enrich the film’s appeal without complicating things by introducing too much unnecessary character detail. The one time the film slips up in the regard is in Emil and Gustav’s battle over Emil’s cousin Pony Hutchen. This hint at a romantic plotline is unnecessary and somewhat uncomfortable in its implication that Emil is romantically infatuated with his own relation. It’s all rather innocent but the film would be all the better without its distraction from the main plot.
This effective little film will likely prove entertaining even for kids who have never seen a black and white film. For those put off by subtitles, the BFI have included a very generous extra in the shape of the 1935 British remake by Milton Rosmer. Although it is ten minutes shorter and clumsily miscredits itself as Emil and the Detective singular, this version is essentially the same film but recast. It works from an almost identical script and carefully models itself on the original, sometimes shot for shot. There are some scenes that are less effective, such as the dressing of the statue or the Dienstag cutaways, but Rosmer also excels in the dream sequence (although he has Lamprecht’s work as a blueprint) and wisely drops the romantic subplot, instead suggesting that Emil is merely a protective cousin rather than a jealous suitor. The plummy accents rather undermine the scruffy appearances of the street kids and the Man in the Bowler Hat is hammier and less sinister than the wonderfully named Fritz Rasp in the original, but all in all the British remake is a fun ride too.
Such successfully engaging children’s films as these are surprisingly rare and the unpatronising approach taken here ensures that pre-teens will identify with and enjoy this ripping yarn! Any adult who likes a good story well told should have a good time too. The obvious reference point that comes immediately to mind is Ealing’s great Hue and Cry which similarly filled the streets with adventurous crowds of children, but that was some two decades away. Emil and the Detectives got there first and it’s a film that anyone with a smidgeon of childlike wonder left in them will smile throughout.
Emil and the Detectives is released by the BFI on 19th August 2013. The only extra is the British remake but the set also includes the usual BFI supplementary book with essays by Michael Rosen, Caren Willig and Bryony Dixon