A Gem of a Revival

This is from an article in the i Newspaper by Boyd Tonkin

Back in the 1930s in Germany, the works of Marx and Freud were burnt as examples of the ‘moral degeneracy’ of the post-war WeimarRepublic. But joining their works on the bonfire at Opernplatz in Berlin on 10 May 1933 were books by the lesser know, poet Erich Kaestner. He was famous for one of the best loved children’s novels of all time, Emil and the Detectives, a tale of a child lost in a city who finds friends to help him. To many English speaking children, , this was the first work of translated fiction they read. It is now being revived as a play at the National theatre, London in its original form and setting..

It became an instant hit on release and was quickly turned into a film at Babelsburg studios in Berlin, with two future giants of cinema, Billy wilder and Emeric Pressburger. It has been remade many times since as a play and a film, in Germany and elsewhere.  is a story about Little Emil arriving in Berlin, “an extraordinary creative and vibrant world but also  world of tensions.”

Kaestner was born in 1899 to a poor family in Dresden. He recalled with fondness the wonderful architecture of the place where “history, art and nature intermingled.” He went to University at Leipzig, obtaining a doctorate in literature. But he published an erotic poem, and lost his post as critic on a local paper, so set off for Berlin in 1927 to seek his fortune like so many others. The city of the WeimarRepublic was a seething metropolis of art and culture, the setting of Alfred Doeblin’s epic Berlin Alexanderplatz. Kaestner became involved with the Neue Sachlichkiet movement with its close attention to public life; this is the world of Emil. .

The story places a working single mum who gives him 140 marks, which is stolen on the train as he travels to visit relatives in Berlin. Germans were concerned with the soulessness of the seething metropolis, and Emil talks of how “No one has time for other peoples troubles in a city.” But Emil and his band of friends turns the city into a forest, with a grapevine that catches the thief and establishes a network of support. “What could be a daunting metropolis becomes more human because of the friends he makes.”

But the Great Crash struck in 1931, with soaring unemployment. Kaestner published his best adult novel that year, Fabian, or Going to the Dogs, his original and preferred title. It described the city in despair, with listless sexual experimenting and alienation. .Kaestner stayed in Berlin, enduring interrogations by the Gestapo and virtually stopped writing. He was banned from publishing when Goebbels found out he had written the script for the 1943 epic Munchhausen under a false name.

After the war he began writing again, and was showered with honours. He died in 1974. So much of what we ‘know’ of Berlin is either through the film Cabaret or the horrors of the war. It is great to see this rare translation from German returning to the London stage, and it is really important to see another side of that traumatic time, one shown through the eyes of a child, full of hope and adventure.


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